Cancer is a thief. It steals your health. It steals your energy. Often it steals your hair. And, more often than is talked about, it steals your friends. Dear friends steal away in the midst of treatment, leaving you wondering what happened to your loved ones in your time of greatest need.
It’s not uncommon, this exodus of friends. Moya St. Leger was diagnosed with breast cancer at 79, and suddenly many of her lifelong friends stopped contacting her. She writes, “No cancer patients should be expected to have compassion and show understanding towards so-called friends who disappear in their hour of need.”
Blogger Kerri Morris was also abandoned by close friends. She tries her best to look on the bright side and remember the friends who stuck by her: “People have been good to me. It’s just that abandonment cuts so very deep. In the midst of our fear and suffering from cancer, rejection is devastating.”
There is no excuse for abandoning a friend, but it may help to understand the reasons why people jump ship when the water gets choppy. Below are 7 common reasons why a friend may abandon a friend during cancer treatment, and opinions on how to cope:
Someone may be genuinely sad that their friend is going through cancer, but still grateful that it didn’t happen to them. It’s a natural reaction, but it can lead to a sense of shame and a type of survivor’s guilt: people feel bad for their gratefulness. These mixed feelings of shame and relief can make communication with a cancer patient too awkward or guilt-inducing for them to bear. Since they can’t can’t handle these feelings, they may choose to avoid their friend completely.
Cancer is scary. The patient can’t get away from it, but a friend can run away. Kerri Morris shares, “I believe that some people are afraid and can’t confront their fears. Some need you to be strong and simply can’t tolerate seeing you weak.” Perhaps you’ve always been the one to offer strength and support, and your friend can’t handle it when the tables are turned. This may be especially true when a parent or older sibling has cancer.
Writer PJ Hamel shares that a best friend stopped talking to her after her breast cancer diagnosis. Only years later was PJ able to reconnect with her friend and ask why she was ignored in her time of need. Her friend’s response is heartbreaking, but the sentiment is not uncommon: “I was scared. Scared of cancer. Scared you’d die. And I wasn’t strong enough to face down those fears. So I walked away.”
Some folks cannot stand to feel helpless, and it’s hard to avoid that feeling when a friend has cancer. They may feel like they can’t make any difference or that they have nothing to offer. Some people aren’t content if they can’t try to “fix” a situation. But there’s no quick fix for cancer, and someone may not be able handle offering only a listening ear. Since they can’t offer solutions, they simply check out.
Friends may see in you what might someday happen to them: tragedy. This is especially true for people with whom you share similar life circumstances: friends the same age, siblings, people in your neighborhood. If cancer can happen to you, then it might also happen to them. Ignoring you may be a way to ignore the fact that bad things happen, and no one’s health is guaranteed.
Writer Harriet Brown shares about how people with children the same age as her daughter withdrew from them when her daughter was going through anorexia treatment. “It’s magical thinking in the service of denial: If bad things are happening to you and I stay away from you, then I’ll be safe,” she writes.
There are people who are socially awkward in the best of situations, and cancer is more than they can (or will) face. There are people who’ve never gone through tragedy before, so they don’t have any idea what to say or do. Your friend may worry about saying or doing the wrong thing so much that they simply drop out of your life.
It’s better to be an awkward friend than an absent friend, but folks may think it would be better for all involved if they just left you alone—completely.
Unfortunately, some friends aren’t good at sharing attention. Sad as it is, someone may feel “upstaged” by your cancer. Perhaps they’re jealous of other friends spending more time with you. Perhaps the shift from fun and laughter to work and tears is too much for them, and they need more attention for themselves. This might result from a lack of attention in childhood, a deep insecurity, or simply being out of touch with reality.
Whatever the reason, it cuts deeply when someone cannot move out of spotlight long enough to be a real friend.
7. They Just don’t care as much as you thought
Perhaps a friend, or even a family member, is a great pal when it’s time for movie night or happy hour, but when they chips are down, you find they only want to ride the fun train. Your cancer is cramping their style, and so they leave you behind.
However you deal with your other relationships, this fair-weather-friend should probably not get an invite to your final day of chemo party—or anything else.
So What Should You Do?
How you choose to deal with loved ones who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand by you during cancer is a deeply personal issue. There may be friends that you’re unable to invite back into your life, or that you have to dismiss when they try to pop back in after your treatment. You may be able to offer forgiveness, but remember that forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to still be friends. Respect your own boundaries and insist that others respect them as well.
Kerri Morris shares her conviction that people often abandon their friends because of their own deep-seated issues, and while painful, it isn’t meant to be personal. “It’s possible to accept that people have limitations, and that some are incapable of being there for you. When, or if, they come back, it’s possible to begin again,” she says.
If mending relationships isn’t an option, consider seeking new relationships in support groups or deepening relationships with friends who did stick by you.
It is not your job to tell your friends that you need support—they should already know! Unfortunately, so many people feel helpless in the face of a friend’s cancer diagnosis. A little encouragement from you can go a long way. Try sending an email to let people know that things will be different, but you absolutely still need their support. Encourage them that:
- You want to be treated normally. You could use some normalcy in your life!
- They don’t have to say that everything will be fine. In fact, they shouldn’t. It’s better to say nothing than offer platitudes.
- Laughter is welcome. Laughter with a friend is one of life’s great gifts.
- You might cry. They might cry. It’s all okay. Laughing while crying is okay.
- You need them to get busy. You need meals made, rides offered, cards sent. There are many practical ways to help!
- It doesn’t have to be all cancer talk. Some folks are deeply afraid of cancer, so let them know that you’d love to hear about other things as well.
In a perfect world, everyone’s friends and family would stick by them through thick and thin. Of course, in a perfect world there wouldn’t be any cancer! But the world is not perfect, and people who should be there for us abandon us. Remember that their failing is not your fault, and it’s okay to be upset and angry. Try to forgive as much as you can for your own sake—don’t let bitterness against someone else poison your own heart.
Stay strong, friends.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.