Friends Don’t Always Cope Well With Cancer


I was surprised and saddened at how some of my friends were not there for me when I was undergoing cancer treatment. The oncology ward became a lonely place.

cartoon drawing of blogger and lymphoma survivor, John Smelcer

“Friends of a feather stick together,” they say, except for when death is a possibility.

That’s what I learned from my cancer treatment. It’s hard to put a finger on it and even harder to say aloud. But impending death has a way of putting distance between people. Not everyone, of course.

For me, I was surprised and even saddened by the way some of my friends seemed to disappear when I needed them most. Despite all the doctors and nurses and other staff involved in cancer treatment, the experience can feel lonely. I know it did for me. I spent a week in the hospital every month for half a year. Don’t get me wrong. The nurses on the oncology unit were amazing (except for when they woke me up in the middle of the night to take vitals and blood draws). But life in a hospital is boring. The television is the only constant companion.

Some friends kept in touch almost daily via phone calls or texts or emails. Some made a point to come visit me during each cycle. But plenty of folks that I considered friends kept a palpable distance, which made me feel even lonelier.

Here I was going through the most difficult and frightening time of my life, where I was facing my own uncertain demise. Would I live or would I die? At times I felt like nobody really cared. There were people I had known all my life, family members even, who rarely, if ever, reached out to ask how I was doing. Almost no one sent me cards or flowers (or boxes of chocolate).

I remember gazing out the eighth-floor window in my room and watching the world go about its daily business as I sat in my room wondering if I would ever be part of that world again. Death was never far from my mind. By the third or fourth day of each hospitalization, my loneliness became unbearable. At times, I felt like no one would miss me if I departed this world.

On the other hand, one old friend surprised me by coming to visit me during every week of hospitalization. I’d shuffle down to the main lobby where we’d sit and talk over coffee for about an hour. I came to look forward to our visits.

My only real constant companion during my cancer ordeal was poetry. I wrote poems about how I was feeling, what I was going through, how my body was being wrecked by the chemotherapy. Depending on the day, the poems were sad, lonely, humorous, satirical, hopeful, uplifting and even tragic. When my cancer was cured, I compiled the poems into a chronological collection that recounted my experience from beginning to end. The book, “Running from the Reaper,” is now available online for anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, is going through cancer treatment, or who cares for someone with cancer.

But now that the ordeal is over and my cancer has been defeated, time has given me a new perspective on what I went through. I think it comes down to this: People don’t know what to do or say in the face of death and dying. As a society, we largely shun the uncomfortable subject. It’s an American thing. Other cultures around the world accept dying as part of living, a natural cycle of life. But we don’t. We resist it.

My wife was a widow when I met her. Her husband had passed away a few years earlier. Often, she remarked to me how people around her — friends and colleagues — didn’t seem to know what to do or say, so they largely ignored her grief. When they did say something, it was the usual, “He’s in a better place.” But to my grieving wife, her dead husband was not in a better place. Being with her, loving her, taking long walks, going through life together, enjoying meals and quiet evenings together was a better place.

I understand a little bit why some people behave that way. My uncle died years ago. He was hospitalized for most of year. And although I loved him like a father, I didn’t reach out to him once. He called me on his deathbed to say goodbye. I told him I was sorry I hadn’t called him. I told him that I had been in denial. He can’t die. I need him in my life. I love him too much for him to die, I thought. I avoided his dying because I didn’t want to believe it was true. If I didn’t accept it, maybe it wouldn’t happen. It was easier for me that way.

Ever since, I have regretted that I didn’t stay in touch every single day my beloved uncle was in the hospital. But I am human, too. I didn’t know what to do or say. I was frightened for him. I was frightened for me. In a way, his illness reminded me of my own mortality. Here today, gone tomorrow. To save myself, I discounted his suffering.

In retrospect, I have come to understand that those friends who did not come to visit me or reach out to me more often may have felt the same way I did about my uncle. What can they say or do? What is the right thing? Does anything they say or do matter? Like me, they too must have felt conflicted. Death is a scary thing. Cancer is one of those words that terrify us. Any one of us can fall victim to it at any time for no apparent reason whatsoever. No one deserves to have cancer. How do you talk about something so indiscriminate?

From a more practical response, some friends delivered scrumptious meals to my family throughout the ordeal. They call it a “Meal Train.” I had never known of it before, but what a wonderful way to be helpful and supportive during hard times. To all those friends who cooked with their hearts and nourished my family with their loving kindness, I am ever grateful (and I miss that homemade chicken pot pie). If you find yourself where I found myself, alone and scared, lying in hospital bed or sitting in Ambulatory Infusion getting your chemotherapy, know that you are not alone. There are people who love you and think about you. They just may not know how to show it for their fears.

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