Relationships and Cancer

I am honored to have been asked to contribute to Share Cancer Support’s blog on the topic of relationships and cancer. I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer a little over a year ago and from my experience, relationships change A LOT with cancer. While I’m not one of those people who will paint a rosy picture of cancer — and I definitely won’t call it a blessing — I will say that some of those changes are for the better. However, at least an equal number fall on the other side of the equation.

On the plus side, some relationships have deepened and grown. This is particularly true for close family members who engaged with me in hard life-and-death conversations, and who helped me face a diagnosis that went from not-so-bad to definitely-not-good. They have seen me bald, barely able to concentrate or stay awake, and they have helped me celebrate the little steps on the long and slow road back. I’ve gotten closer to my husband, to my adult children and their partners, and to my sisters-in-law; there’s nothing like holding hands and staring straight into the abyss to bring you together. They offered comfort and support, and most importantly, encouragement. Our motto was “we got this” and together we did, even though at times I wasn’t sure that I did. I know it may sound morbid, but when I was about to enter chemo after my two surgeries, I wrote letters to my husband and children, just in case I didn’t make it. I wanted to write them when I still had all of my faculties, before chemo brain hit, just to leave them with a few thoughts about things I wanted them to know, or to remember, or to be careful of. Those letters still sit sealed on my husband’s desk and to some extent, I’ve told each of them the most important things over the course of the last year. Cancer will do that.

There were also a few surprises, like the fellow swimmer I met one day just before my first surgery in the locker room at the gym, who told me about her breast cancer, and who was an amazing source of support through this entire year. I developed a close friendship with her, despite our almost 20-year age difference. Or the total strangers introduced to me by other friends and who had traveled the breast cancer road before me, and who were there to answer questions at all hours of the day or night — What did you eat during chemo? When did you start to lose your hair? Did you wear a wig or embrace a bald head? Did you get irrationally depressed? And of course, there were the friends who stopped by with novels to read, food to eat, knitting to teach, or who sent regular texts or emails. This rag-tag group was my own personal support group, scattered all over the country, and they literally got me through the worst of it. Cancer is like that.

On the flip side, were the people who were serious disappointments — people who could not get out of their own way to be supportive and either wanted to micromanage my cancer, or tell me how they were so upset they were losing sleep. Or one who, to this day, one year later, has yet to acknowledge that I have cancer, let alone wish me well. Am I hurt and angry? You betcha. But if I’m honest, none of it was a surprise, and if I had thought about it, I probably could have predicted that they’d be jerks. So in some way, cancer brought the issues that were there all along to the forefront. It also gave me permission to ask these folks to stop calling and to leave me alone. Cancer will do that, too.

In the middle is an interesting group of people who were there for a little while during the worst of treatment. They’d check in on occasion or write cards and notes, and all of it was helpful. Many of these people were colleagues or friends on the periphery, but that sort of attention can’t reasonably be sustained over the long haul. I foolishly thought that these were the beginnings of closer relationships, and when I reached out after treatment to continue what I thought was the start of something deeper, I found out that these weren’t actually friends, just acquaintances trying to do the right thing. I’m still grateful for their attention, but now see it for what it was. Cancer is like that, too.

Ultimately, cancer has offered a different perspective. Life really is short, shorter than I ever thought it was and could be shorter still. But the group of people that I want with me on this journey is small and precious and filled with those who saw me through and continue to be at my side.

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