Cancer changes friendships. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, the first time, most of my friends were colleagues. We were all in our twenties, some were married, most of us didn’t have children yet. When I was downsized and diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer within a three week span my life changed forever. My identity changed. My colleagues cared about me. They called, visited, sent cards, and gifts. My downsizing was a result of the office closing. Most of my colleagues had to relocate and the few who remained found other jobs and, sadly, I only see them at the grocery store or on Facebook.
I spent a few years in brutal treatment with stays in hospitals that last weeks to months long. I became really close to a handful of nurses. Nurses are amazing people. After eight major surgeries, more than half with ICU recoveries. I ALWAYS attributed my recovery to the nursing. Skilled nurses help their patents heal faster, they know when to advocate for their patients and will fight for them.
I became friends with one nurse at my oncologist’s office. I originally met her when my husband and I sat behind her and her husband at church. Our husbands worked together. They introduced us. The following Tuesday I show up for my first chemo treatment and there she as part of my care team. It was a scary day for me and I was relieved to see a beautiful, smiling, familiar face. For the rest of this story I will call her *Mary. We’re the same age, our kids are the same age, our husbands work together, we started spending time together outside of the chemo appointments. I don’t even remember how that happened or who initiated this friendship but I needed a friend and she was there. We found out we had a lot in common. Mary was a scrapbooker. I was making scrapbooks of my life in the event of my death my kids would know me from my own stories and pictures. (They were 2.5 and 4 years old when I was diagnosed and I was afraid they wouldn’t remember me.) Mary and I spent countless hours scrapbooking while our kids played. We spent Christmases with Mary and her extended family. I fell in love with her parents. Once when I had to make a 6 hour round trip to see my doctor and have tests done Mary’s dad was my chauffeur. It’s a darn good thing he was there because I had no idea the tests that day would be so brutal. I was planning on driving myself, in the snow. Mary’s dad showed up and simply refused to let me go by myself. I was so grateful he was there.
After years of close friendship Mary was slow to return my calls. I knew something was wrong. Months went by with little contact then she called to tell me she’d been diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. I cried. It wasn’t pity. I hate pity. I was sad. I knew what she was facing and I was sad my friend had to go through it. I was with Mary and her mom when she had her port surgery. I was with Mary for many of her chemo treatments. The nurses and I had a little hat and scarf shower for her in anticipation for her hair loss.
People like to send books to their friends when they’re diagnosed with cancer. Self-help, inspirational, yak piss and elderberry juice cures for cancer books. I swear if one more person ever tells me I need alkaline water to balance my body and cure my cancer I’ll punch them in the face. It’s really quite ridiculous but well intentioned. I sent Mary a year’s subscription to Netflix, a comfy blanket, and warm socks. Nobody wants the yak piss book. (See note below for other ideas of how to support a newly diagnosed friend.)
After chemo and radiation Mary had surgery. It was a tough surgery and from what I was told by the other oncology nurses, reconstruction was difficult and complicated. I don’t really know what happened because Mary removed herself from my life. I called and called, texted, left messages, sent cards. I asked her if I did or said something to upset her. I asked her to forgive me for whatever I did. I’m bold. I’m brutally honest. I’ve been told I’m intimidating. I know these things about me and I know I’ve hurt people being this way but it’s never been my intention and if I’ve hurt someone, especially someone I care about, I want to know and I want to make it right. But Mary wouldn’t tell me what I did or said. After months of trying I gave up and gave her the space she obviously wanted.
I saw Mary occasionally over the years at the oncologist’s office, our husband’s work events, or kids soccer games. She was always polite but distant. I mourned the loss of her friendship like a death. I really missed her and her family. It really hurt me.
It’s been ten years. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer again. It’s stage IV again. Mary started texting me again. I’m confused. At first the tests were ‘Hi, how are you? How are the kids?’ I answered her politely but with distance. Then last week she texted, “Hi Friend. How are you?”
My life is too short to let that go. Hi Friend??? Are we friends? Do I even want to be friends with her?
And why, oh why, is everything via text these days. After ten years I feel like this maybe should’ve been a phone call. But I, of course, responded with a text. I told her I’m confused by her greeting because I didn’t think we were friends. I told her most of what I’ve already written here. How much I cared for her and her family and how hurt I was when she cut me out of all their lives with no explanation. And why reach out now that I have cancer again?
She responded that she understood how I felt and how it looked her reaching out now. She says it wasn’t anything specifically that I said or did and that she didn’t mean to push me away. She said “You are a lot stronger than me” and that she ‘didn’t have anything to give’. She reminded me of our early conversations when she was first diagnosed about how exhausting it is being the one who is sick, tasked with making everyone else around them feel better, reassuring them that you’re okay. Painting on a smile and faking it so the people around you don’t fall apart. I understand all that and it’s true but I should’ve been the one person for whom she didn’t have to paint on that smile.
Mary said she’d understand if I didn’t consider her a friend and wished me well.
I can’t get the last ten years back but I want to keep moving forward building worthwhile friendships.
One thing cancer has taught me: Life is too short to hold on to hurt and unforgiveness.
*Mary is not her real name.
Note: Check out this blog written by my friend, fellow survivor, and Lynchie Danielle Ripley-Burgess for great gift ideas if your friend or loved one has just been diagnosed with cancer.
Leighann Sturgin has Lynch Syndrome, is a 16 year stage IV colon cancer survivor who is currently undergoing immunotherapy treatment for stage IV rectal cancer. She is Manager of the Kimberly Fund for The Colon Club and was featured in the 2015 Colondar 2.0. She lives in Wooster, Ohio with her husband Todd and sons Nate and Kyle. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @littlesturgin on Twitter, Instagram and Colon Talk.