Do Well-Meaning Friends of People With Cancer Always Mean Well?

A cancer diagnosis can sometimes stop a friendship in its tracks.

Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted by a contributing writer and does not represent the views of CURE Media Group.

After the diagnosis of a terminal illness, many patients with cancer have experienced being given “the business” or the “heave-ho” by friends. As a metastatic breast cancer patient, I had enough to deal with learning my life suddenly had a short expiration date without the added trauma of friends who walked away without a word.

There can’t be a good reason for this behavior. Friends who dump you because you may be dying have no excuse for their insensitivity. And friends who say things like, “But you don’t look like you’re dying!” aren’t earning praise, either. Are they trying to be kind, not realizing this is a thought better not spoken? Or is this thought incredulity lurking somewhere in the recesses of their minds?

My experience occurred in two separate phone calls with my former nurse friends. Very tearfully, I blurted out my new diagnosis of de novo stage 4 breast cancer with bone metastasis. I learned about it few days prior, so I had not yet gotten used to the idea of being terminal. They called me for casual conversation and probably for an opinion on a troubling matter or a day out shopping. After I dropped the c-bomb, the call ended abruptly. Neither one contacted me again. Not so much as a note card, email, text, tweet or even a Facebook message. Hello?! I don’t have the plague or some other horribly contagious disease!

It has been over five years and I still ruminate over it. Rejection and abandonment are two very tough personal crises to walk away from unscathed. You have no closure and no goodbyes. There is no, “it was nice being friends, but I can’t stick around while you slowly succumb to cancer.”

I needed closure. I wanted the last word. So I emailed both of these well-meaning friends and told them I felt what they did was cruel and cold. I added that I was doing great (not yet dying) and wished them well. Of course, this was a year after those fatal calls, so they probably thought I had lost my marbles due to my diseased status. But it was still worth it, as I got what I wanted. I no longer feel wounded, but I do still feel unfairly abandoned!

Not much about cancer is fair. Similar situations like this happen all the time. I’ve read about them online in social networks that are private and exist to support metastatic patients. Nearly everyone I’ve encountered can attest to at least one well-meaning former friend or co-worker who left them high and dry at a time when they were needed. We want real honest-to-goodness friends who stick with us even if the going gets tough! It doesn’t take much to show you care. Simple things like a phone call here or a note card there will do. A visit or two to chat like old times. Perhaps an invitation to a movie or lunch now and then would still be nice.

Getting out and doing something that doesn’t cause fatigue and has nothing to do with our illness is often the best diversion. We most likely will not expect you to make us a casserole or freeze some dinners for later. We also won’t want you to do our laundry, clean our house or run errands. We have close family and intimate friends who help with that. You are the casual friend we worked with, went on breaks with and had lunch with. We saw each other socially on occasion, went to employee picnics and parties together, and had many long chats on the phone. We are the casual acquaintance that you called upon whenever you wanted a laugh, a good time or help with a personal problem.

To demonstrate the gut-wrenching feeling experienced when a friend ditches you in a time of need, I present an over-the-top, hypothetical scenario. I hope it gives you a chuckle. If we don’t laugh at ourselves now and then, we may be crying. Tears are something most people don’t really want to witness, trust me. Tears make people feel guilty, helpless, powerless and down in the dumps.

The Well-Meaning Friend

My well-meaning friend says there’s a nasty rumor.

Everyone is talking about my spreading tumor!

She pointedly asks, “Are you actually dying?

Tell me honestly. Are these people lying?”

It seemed like you were doing so well!

Now then, who else should we to tell?

Don’t get mad, it’s what friends are for.

OK, I won’t come back here anymore!”

For people who know someone with cancer, the bottom line is to use good judgement. Be sensitive and think about what it might feel being the person with the diagnosis.