Losing my breasts was hard, but losing one of my best friends was even harder, and something I’ve had to come to terms with.
When I began to speak publicly about cancer survivorship, I started by making a list of life lessons that cancer had taught me.
One of the many surprises that cancer had in store for me when I was diagnosed was the fact that I, like so many others, would be cancer “ghosted.”I had no idea that this happened at all, much less that it is so incredibly common.
This is the phenomenon of friends or family “ghosting” you or literally disappearing and cutting off all contact after a cancer diagnosis is revealed. In fact, one study found that 65% of respondents to a recent survey reported that they experienced cancer ghosting. This is quite counterintuitive — cancer should be a time when your friends and family band together to form a tight impenetrable cocoon of support. Why on earth would friends NOT support you in your time of need? But cancer is funny that way. It has a strange tendency to reveal who your true friends are, and unfortunately, who they are not.
In my case, I lost two friends during my cancer journey. They were the very last people I expected would literally abandon me at my most vulnerable point. One of those people I had considered to be a lifelong friend. We had a solid 22 years of friendship before I was diagnosed. We had been through good times and bad times together, as is typical with a friendship that spans decades. But after I shared my diagnosis, I was very surprised to find that all contact with me was cut off. No responses to emails, texts, phone calls. Even when I was reaching out because I was confused and hurt, this did not generate any sort of reciprocal response.
There certainly is the phenomenon of burnout among friends and family members of the person who is living with cancer. This occurs when the need for support becomes so intense in its depth or frequency that the friend/family member needs to take a respite from all things cancer in order to maintain a degree of emotional self-preservation. This is understandable. However, this was NOT the situation I found myself in when I was ghosted.
When I shared my diagnosis, it was very early on, and there were a lot of details I didn’t yet know, including stage, treatment, prognosis… After that first conversation where I revealed that I had cancer, I heard nothing from this friend for over a year. They literally had no idea whether I was going to be fine, whether I was going live with cancer, or perhaps, whether I was going to die of cancer.
Honestly, this was one of the most painful parts of the entire cancer experience for me. Losing my breasts was hard. Losing my close friend of 22 years…was not something that I had even remotely thought might happen. It was a bitter and painful lesson that I was forced to learn during a particularly vulnerable time in my life.
So why does this happen so frequently to patients with cancer? Well, I certainly have had enough time to ruminate on this thought and come up with all kinds of theories. Maybe they were going through something in their life that made it so that they couldn’t be there for me. But then why not reach back out once the rough patch for them was over? Shame? Embarrassment? Guilt? Maybe their own mental health at the time was not in the best of shape and they felt that taking on my crap was too much for them to handle.
I will never truly know why — and that is something I have had to come to terms with. I am still frustrated, hurt and angry that this happened, and because of how it happened, I still have not found closure. It is doubtful that I ever will.
But cancer has some other surprises too. Sometimes the people who show up for you are the people you would least expect. Maybe they hardly know you, but heard that you might need some help, so here they are. Cancer introduces you to a whole tribe of supporters, of fellow cancer patients, and a community that is like no other.
Lesson #8 on my list of life lessons that cancer taught me is: Invest your time and emotional bandwidth in people who will show up for you, no matter what. Make new friends. Form a new support network. You do not need the drama of having “friends” who will decide to excuse themselves from your life when things get challenging. If you find that this happens, even though it is SO painful, let them go. You deserve support from people who will go above and beyond to be there for you and whatever you need.
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