Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
A metastatic breast cancer survivor notes that It takes bravery to choose friends with cancer, but she stresses that the love and joy that comes with those friendships far outweigh the potential grief.
There are practically endless ways to find people experiencing cancer — support groups, exercise classes, chemotherapy chairs, school playgrounds and even parent groups.
With social media, and now with so many activities going virtual (fancy a yoga class with a person living in Florida with metastatic breast cancer?), there are even more opportunities to meet people with whom you connect beyond the label of cancer.
At more than five years post-diagnosis with de novo metastatic breast cancer, when I look around at my friend group, I notice that I've added a very vocal, deliciously opinionated, group of women and men living with cancer who I "see" nearly every day on social media and, when I'm lucky, in person.
However, unlike befriending a fellow kindergarten mom who lives in the same neighborhood or the person in the next office, having cancer diagnosis doesn’t provide any clues about a person. I try to keep that in mind particularly on social media, where it is easy to be caught unprepared for information about a cancer friend that would probably prevent you from being a friend in "real life".
Here are some of my own personal protective pieces of advice if you’re looking to bond with friends with cancer:
Sometimes cancer is enough — I have several friends with cancer with whom I am close, but who disagree with my stance on multiple topics, as I do with theirs, yet there are moments when the perfect words of support come from them and no one else. When cancer is the strongest bond and you value the relationship, remember why you became friends and know that there probably will be times when you need to take a break from each other to maintain the friendship.
Be respectful of boundaries — Even if you feel an instant bond with someone you met at a cancer yoga class, they might not feel the same. Cancer is a link, but it isn't a superglue. While you may be able to talk most days, your new friend may have responsibilities and interests that mean they are available only at limited, pre-arranged times. This is, frankly, the way of all friendships.
People move on — Cancer friendships can be deep and powerful forces that provide hope and solace and fun, but they can also end when one half of the friendship needs to make a change for any number of reasons. I was friends with someone who had cancer before I received my diagnosis. Although she was kind to me early on in my journey, she slowly stopped wanting to be around me. My world sometimes revolves around cancer, whereas she prefers to put cancer behind her. And, though that saddens me, I don't blame her. I understand protecting one's own mental health.
Being openminded pays dividends — Not too long ago, in a Facebook group for people with cancer, a woman was looking to connect with people of a similar age and had kids at similar stages. I understand that too — I still think about how alone I felt when I could only find groups addressing moms of young children when I was faced with teenagers amid a metastatic cancer diagnosis. As it turns out, though, the people I turn to again and again in “cancerland” are not like me. I venture into friendship with people who have different types of cancer, and not just breast cancer. Some friends are quite a lot older; others are younger. Many have never been parents, and men figure into the picture as well. They are driven professionals, aspiring artists, homebound, and world travelers. When I think about this wide-ranging group, I tell myself how lucky I am that I didn't fall into a "Metastatic Moms Of Teens" group right from the start (though, hey, if you are looking for a gap in care, that one is still there).
Be prepared for loss — Cancer claims many lives every day. Sometimes it takes decades, and sometimes it takes significantly less than that. Any circle of friends knows that a serious illness may strike, but when you're starting from the point of cancer, this loss is almost inevitable. It takes bravery to choose friends with cancer. It takes knowing that the love and joy you find far outweigh grief. Still, when a friend with cancer is dying, be thoughtful about your place in their life. Don't overwhelm family with your own grief. This is hard to remember when someone you love is dying, but it is the truth every time — give care and listen to those closest. It isn't their job to comfort you (you have other cancer friends for that).