My Friend Wasn’t There For Me During Breast Cancer. Here’s Why I’m Not Bitter

Everyone thinks they know exactly what they’ll do when the going gets tough. But the truth is we don’t know how we’ll respond to traumatic events, writes Sara Liyanage
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Getty Images

“Sara, is that you?” she called after me as I walked along the high street.

Yes, it was me – although I looked very different from when we’d last seen each other a year earlier. For starters I had a dog with me (he’d only arrived in my life a few months earlier). But I also had a greyish brown buzzcut, having lost my long blond hair to the chemo I’d had over the course of the past year. And I was probably a stone and a half heavier thanks to the steroids and my general inability to do much exercise while going through treatment for breast cancer.

It threw me off guard to see her. She was a friend who I hadn’t seen since we’d had lunch the year before, and I hadn’t heard from her since a brief text exchange shortly after the lunch in which I’d told her that I’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She’d immediately responded with shock and sympathy. And that was it. Nothing since. I hadn’t heard anything from her during my year of gruelling breast cancer treatment.

Why hadn’t she been in touch while I was going through my year from hell? Why hadn’t she called me, sent me a card, popped over for a cuppa, invited me to her house for a break from treatment? Why hadn’t she even just sent me a text to say, “thinking of you”?

“I’ve come to understand that the absence of friends during cancer treatment is not unusual. In fact, it’s one of the most common things you’ll hear”

Despite being on the receiving end of a vast amount of love, support and kindness from my family and the rest of my friends, not hearing from a friend whilst going through breast cancer was hard, and it was hurtful. On top of everything breast cancer had brought with it (scans, hospital appointments, fear, tests, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, stress, pain, hair loss, anxiety, palpitations and tears) I was also worrying about why someone hadn’t been in touch. Why hadn’t she been in touch? What was wrong with me? What had I done?

Since that encounter in the high street, I’ve come to understand that the absence of friends during cancer treatment is not unusual. In fact, it’s one of the most common things you’ll hear from people who have, or have had, cancer. Ask a roomful of people who’ve had cancer and I can guarantee that a significant proportion will say they had a similar experience with one or more friends. I recently did a Twitter poll just to check this – and the results of this were that 81% had a friend back off or disappear during cancer treatment.

But why? Why do friends who you’d expect – hope – to step up and rally around during the most awful time in your life, back away or disappear entirely?

After a fair amount of consideration on this issue, I’ve come to realise that despite the odd person who is just selfish and thoughtless, more often than not there is a more understandable explanation.

Perhaps my friend found it hard to be around a cancer patient because she’s scared of cancer. Some people haven’t known anyone with cancer and so they don’t know much about it. This is particularly true of younger people – those of us 45 and under for whom cancer is not that common within our peer groups. These people often only know what they’ve learned from the media which is that people get cancer, go bald and die.

This isn’t necessarily true. But because they’re so scared, they haven’t educated themselves about cancer, its treatment and survival rates. So, as an act of self-preservation, these people start to distance themselves from the thing that scares them – the thought that someone they’re close to might die.

Perhaps my friend found it hard to be around a cancer patient because it brought back traumatic memories. Having a friend go through cancer treatment might remind some people of a difficult time when they, or a loved one, went through cancer. It might bring back memories of when someone they loved died from cancer.

For someone who has had first-hand experience of cancer, watching a friend go through it can stir up lots of unpleasant and traumatic feelings. Feelings with which they struggle and which they will do anything to avoid allowing to resurface. Again, it’s an act of self-preservation for these people. They don’t want to relive it, so they back away from the reminder.

“The human brain can only deal with a certain amount of stress, and we only have a certain amount of strength to see us through the difficult times”

Perhaps my friend was dealing with her own difficult personal issues at the same time that I was going through cancer. We don’t know everything that’s going on in the lives of our friends. We don’t necessarily know if they are dealing with financial troubles, relationship issues, difficulties with their children, health scares or any number of other personal problems that could be going on.

The human brain can only deal with a certain amount of stress, and we only have a certain amount of strength to see us through the difficult times. If someone is dealing with their own stressful situation then maybe they don’t have the reserves to be there for their cancer friend.

Perhaps my friend was just completely overwhelmed by the cancer situation and did not know what to say or do. I think we just assume that everyone knows exactly what to do when the going gets tough. But that’s just not true. People often feel confused and uncertain when faced with new and traumatic events.

So, when faced with a friend diagnosed with cancer, it might send some people into a panic. They might think that their cancer friend would prefer to not see anyone, preferring to keep the situation private. They might not know that it would be helpful to offer some practical help. They might not know that it would be nice to have them pop over for a cuppa and a chat. They might not know what to say or what to do, so they back away not saying or doing anything.

Whatever the reason, when someone isn’t there for you during a traumatic life event, it hurts. A lot. So, if you have a friend going through cancer or some other traumatic life experience please help prevent some heartache and let your friend know why you can’t be there for them. Believe me, a quick text will go a long way. Tell them that you love them but you don’t know what to do, that you’re scared or that you’ve got some other stuff going on. And I promise that it will make the world of difference for you both.

Sara Liyanage is the author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer and the founder of tickingoffbreastcancer.com

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