Ever fancied a litmus test for your friendships? Then may I recommend a cancer diagnosis. You’ll be surprised, I guarantee it.
Cancer changes your life in so many bizarre and unforeseeable ways; from the monumental, such as how long you may have left to live, through to the small but irritating, such as (trust me) whether or not you’re going to be able to comfortably poop today.
It also acts as powerful catalyst to the making and breaking of personal bonds; whether you want it to or not.
In dealing with this unexpected side effect over the last few months I’ve moved from bitter resentment, viewing it as yet another aspect of my life ‘poisoned’ by this unrelenting disease, to acceptance and indeed a deep appreciation of its impact on the overall quality of my life.
In shining a harsh light on the fundamental foundations of relationships I had, up until now, probably taken for granted as unshakeable, I have been granted a rare insight into which special friendships I should invest much of my time and effort into nurturing and which friendships I should accept were not what I had perceived them to be pre-diagnosis. It allowed me to build upon old connections, and even to create brand spanking new ones.
Of course, it wasn’t a smooth ride. At first I was hurt and angry when some of the people I expected to be there for me were nowhere to be seen. I wanted to send passive aggressive texts. To leave sullen answerphone messages and post vaguely disgruntled Facebook statuses. I even deleted various friends from social media accounts in moments of rage. Anything to get these folks to hopefully acknowledge my existence in a time of need.
Next, I internalised the distress, and began wondering what was so bloody awful about me that I’d managed to drive away and alienate so many I hoped to be able to lean on. I’ve never been the easiest person to love longterm, full of flaws and prone to being Quite Hard Work, so of course wouldn’t blame anyone who felt that they needed to cut ties with me for their own sake – but this was new, and it would drive me to heartbroken tears some days.
As time passed, however, I began to realise that there was no point in being angry, and that instead it was important to work on seeing things from others’ perspectives. To be able to calmly let go and step back, and to be consciously kind; both to myself and to those I perceived as having let me down.
Cancer is fucking awful, and someone being diagnosed causes a ripple effect which impacts everyone in different ways, no matter how small and unnoticed. It often comes without warning, and many people simply don’t know how to react to or process the news.
Others worry about what to say, or fear upsetting you by saying the wrong thing. They might go so far as to totally avoid you so that they don’t have the opportunity to ‘slip up’ and cause further grief during an already turbulent time. I’m socially awkward as hell, so can definitely relate to this concern.
For some, it might bring about a deep-seated fear. Sickness can be a scary thing to witness, and is prone to making one incredibly aware of their own fragility and mortality. They see in you what may one day happen to them, and so denial and avoidance help to soothe their own dread.
Maybe they have dealt with their own traumas around it; a personal diagnosis or a loss of a loved one for example, and they simply can’t bear to retread old and painful ground.
Helplessness may also come into play, because there’s nothing a friend can really do to ‘fix’ the situation. Feeling obsolete can be dreadful, and some friends may decide that they can’t make any difference or that they have nothing to offer and so simply ‘check out’.
And, yes, some might simply be prone to selfishness. Sad as it is, some people just don’t care as much as you thought. They may feel ‘upstaged’ by your cancer, or resent the shift from a ‘good time friend’ to someone that isn’t always able to come out and socialise. It might be too much effort dealing with you now that laughter doesn’t always come as freely and easily as before. You may no longer be useful to them.
There’s a reason for the term ‘fair-weather-friend’. They might be friends you’ve had since childhood. They might be family members. The might be that person you met on a drunk night out and had such a ‘special bond with’. Whoever they are, it’s important to acknowledge that this is occasionally just how it goes – and that it’s better to know than to not.
On the flip side, you will be amazed by how right you were about a handful of brilliantly supportive friends, as well as completely blown away by people you would never have expected coming out of the woodwork and proving themselves to be invaluable pillars of strength. I know I have been.
Nowadays, when I look at my wonderfully eclectic group of friends, I am acutely aware of the truth in the words ‘quality over quantity’. I feel infinitely lucky to know that there are people in my life who will be with me through thick and thin, in sickness and in health; and that they will always be able to rely on me doing the same for them. In truth, I wouldn’t be standing today, let alone still smiling, without them.
Cancer has altered these relationships too.
It has allowed for a deepening of connections, and a cultivation of transparency, vulnerability and communication.
Where once I might have balked at the idea of telling a good friend that something they said had hurt me, I now see it as a chance to only strengthen our friendship through candidly discussing it and then moving on better equipped. I would have dreaded asking for help or openly talking about what I needed for fear of being seen as needy or selfish, but thanks to the openness of these amazing people have learnt that that’s exactly what I should be doing. I have learned that my celebrations and struggles are also theirs, and vice versa.
Through investment of time and effort my friends and I continue to create spaces, both online and offline, which foster some of the healthiest and most fulfilling relationships I’ve ever had the fortune to experience. I’ve met and grown with others who are dealing with cancer in their own lives, rekindled lost connections, and had my faith affirmed in current ones.
I have learned that there are different kinds of friendships, and that someone sending you occasional messages to check in can be a deeply insightful way of them giving you space whilst letting you know that they are there if you need them. Others may live across the country or half a world away, yet be an integral part of your support network despite the miles. Some may send you letters, gifts and even knitted cacti (seriously) that reduce you to happy tears. Some will check your blog posts for errors, or send you healthy recipe ideas. A few will show up; to chemo, to important events, or on your doorstep with board games, non-alcoholic cocktails and take out.
There are myriad ways that you will feel loved, valued and heard.
I’m also more aware of my own situation, and the impact it might have on my interpretations of situations. It’s difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t faced a similar diagnosis, but things which might have seemed trivial before suddenly become Very Important, as they might be the last time you experience them. Christmas lunch with the family? Emotionally pivotal to me because I don’t know whether or not I’ll be able to do it again in a year’s time. A night in with friends? Exceedingly crucial, because I’m so scared of missing out on their beautiful and messy lives if I get any sicker. Going to the supermarket? I must have my favourite thing because Lord knows I might not be able to enjoy it for much longer. I’m sensitive and raw, my emotions are heightened, and I just bloody care about everything right now.
Finally, I have learned the importance of acceptance; some friendships will come and go, some will last a life time. Sometimes people will fuck up, and sometime you will be the one who ruins it. You cannot control the behaviour of others; only your own reactions to them.
In the end, the important thing is to be generally kind and to nurture understanding of yourself and those around you, whatever role they choose to play (or not play) in your life.