“You have cancer”
More than once in my life I have heard these words. Everyone from my beloved grandma with breast cancer to my father with Hodgkins and finally the day it was said to me.
I know it is terrible and difficult news that your mind is railing against while repeating it on a never ending loop inside the part of your skull that can carry words in an echo chamber. It really is shattering. But it is not the worst thing that is going to happen. Not by a long shot. No, something far more horrible is within reach.
You will lose friends and/or family.
Take a deep breath.
Every article, essay or story about cancer starts with this warning. It should be added to every chronic illness as well. No matter how many times I read these words, I am still unprepared to deal with the reality of someone either openly or covertly ending their relationship with me because I have cancer.
It had happened to my first husband when he was diagnosed with end stage pancreatic-liver cancer. It is never the people you expect to ditch you. Nope. It’s some of the ones who you felt sure about. The ones who swore at sometime, somewhere, to be with you through thick or thin. Like many things, oaths, the life blood of my Celtic heritage aren’t what they use to be. It will hurt when the relationship withers and dies. There is nothing you can do about that. Except to acknowledge it and live through the deep sadness and betrayal of abandonment. Oh, you will feel betrayed, hurt and angry. I recommend singing soul wrenching music, sweating out your emotions through dancing if you are able and take up drumming. All three of these give you a physical outlet to pound something without hurting anyone. The anger moves on. The betrayals, I am still working on.
For anyone contemplating leaving a comment about forgiveness, please stop yourself. I won’t publish the comment. When a friend or family member walks out on you, it is normal to be angry and hurt. You should not give them a free second chance to hurt and abandon you. I loathe “forgiveness culture” where the ultimate absurdity is to forgive yourself. I have a litmus test for “pop” psychology and New Age-isms. If my grandmother never used an idea like “self forgiveness” and would have called it ridiculous, it is just that. Ridiculous. Getting cancer is NOT something I need to forgive myself for. Having a lousy friend or weak family member is not about me either. It’s on them to find forgiveness. It is not on me to pass out “I forgive you’s,” with the bizarre notion that it is beneficial for ME to forgive THEM. It’s long overdue to call BS on that practice. I have not once, not ever, felt better, freer or more loving after forgiving someone who hurt me without any effort on their part to correct the transgression.
If they want to ask for my forgiveness, that’s a whole different thing. It always starts with fourteen words, from them, “I was wrong. I am sorry. What can I do to make this right?” Just so you know, these are the words I use when it has been me who hurt someone else. It is only the start. Forgiveness should be earned, just like trust. Mostly because trust has been broken when you hurt someone.
Also for anyone who felt the need to leave a friend or relative who got cancer or any other illness please don’t leave your reasons on this post. I won’t approve those either. There are a minuscule of necessary exceptions for when leaving is appropriate. Sometimes Dementia and Alzheimer’s fit that exception. But, please, they are exceptions, not the rule. You may have had equally difficult problems or worse things going on in your own life when your friend got sick or when they had yet another complication to their serious illness. We all get overwhelmed. Here’s the thing, my cancer really is all about me. I own it. I share when I am asked by my Neuroendocrine cancer/carcinoid community or an individual asks about it, or I need to vent. I vent infrequently these days. So, when I hear, “I can not handle your cancer, it’s just too hard for me. I can’t be your friend anymore,” I want to know in what way are they handling MY cancer. I checked. It is impossible to give anyone else my cancer to handle for me.
Last are the ones who will say they are only interested in relationships that are reciprocal. Well, WOW. Not once in my life has any relationship been completely reciprocal at all times. Sometimes I am giving more time and energy and sometimes it is the other person doing that, cancer or no cancer. Life does not balance out every second of the day. Sometimes it doesn’t balance out for months or even years. I am not a good score keeper on this front. Perhaps that is one of the secrets of success to my beloved husband’s and my marriage. We never keep score and we are co-conspirators for life, facing the world together with our hands intertwined shoulder to shoulder. Not once have we ever talked about reciprocation or equity. We each do our best for us everyday, however much that is.
What do I or anyone with an illness want? How about just stick around. We may be gone for long bouts of time and that can be annoying and frustrating. My cancer is rare, slow growing and currently incurable. With my current standing, it is possible for me to live a long time. I could also be sick in varying degrees of seriousness for much of that time due to my cancer or other diseases. I have more than one illness because…well…the universe is not fair. We who are ill, want to be welcomed to join you when we physically can. We want to know that you have the resilience to let us be gone when our ilłness forces us to be unavailable. It is the ultimate gift you can give us. My best example is this: We don’t walk out on life because winter lasts longer than we like. When spring comes we are happy to just have it visit us once again. My illness is like that winter that can drag on for too long or reappears after spring has started. It is very inconvenient and unsettling. I know the vast majority of my friends stick out those wintery days with the surety that spring will come and put an end to winter, hoping that summer will be even sweeter and easier. I would ask for the same patience regarding the weather of mine or anyone’s illness.
For every friend and family member who has stuck it out with chronically or long diagnosed sick people, I thank you with all my heart and soul. You did not demand reciprocity. Instead you gave real love, compassion and the open understanding that welcomes us when we are able and gently waits for us when we are unable. Being this kind of friend is rare and wonderful. I believe it reveals the best part of people and life.