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Dr. Irene S. Levine Headshot

Another reason why cancer sucks

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QUESTION

Hi Irene,

I've been struggling with this problem for years, but it's finally taking a toll on me. I've had cancer for over 18 years. I was diagnosed when I was 21 so I've essentially had it my entire adult life. I've learned to cope with it quite well and live a normal, healthy life despite having a chronic illness.

When I was first diagnosed and going through surgeries and treatment a lot of my friends vanished. It hurt a lot, but we were all very young and I know that most of my friends just didn't have the maturity to deal with such a tough situation. I moved on, made new friends, but it still hurt a lot knowing I had so many fair weather friends.

Now I am 38. Most of the people in my life now know that I've had cancer, but they've never seen me sick so I suppose it's hard for them to comprehend all that I went through. I recently had a recurrence and again, many friends are falling by the wayside. I don't know how to cope with this anymore. I learned long ago that it was best to not talk about it too much and to exude a positive attitude. I've tried reassuring the people close to me that even though this is a set back, I've always responded well to treatment in the past so there's no reason to think I won't continue to do so. I am constantly reassuring my friends and family that everything will be okay, but even with all my attempts to comfort those around me, still I am getting the cold shoulder.

So today I am angry and hurt. My phone has not rung in four days. I've sent a couple emails to one best friend asking if she'd like to meet for coffee next week and I received no reply. This isolation is the absolute hardest part of this illness. I feel completely alone and unloved and I know I do not deserve to feel this way. I am getting involved in a support group again which is wonderful, but I miss my friends. I miss my regular life. I miss being able to call a friend knowing that she's going to be excited to see me calling. Now I know she cringes and puts the phone to voice mail because it's easier to avoid me rather than face reality.

None of these people knows how frightening it is knowing I'm truly alone in this. If I can't count on my dearest friend to meet me for coffee then what the heck is going to happen if I'm too sick to drive myself to the hospital for treatment? Who's going to take me home after having surgery? And heaven forbid I might want to have someone visit me when I'm having a bad day. I am at a complete loss.

I can deal with the medical side of cancer. Treatment and surgery are tough but I can take it. The isolation I feel from the people around me though is the most horrible thing I have had to deal with in all of this and it hurts more than anyone can possibly understand. I will persevere. I always do. But, I fear that emotionally, I may not recover so well. I would like to find a neutral way to let the people around me know how hurt I am without making them feel bad. I can't think of a way to do this though. If I am upfront and tell them how much they've hurt me, it will only further drive them away. Is there anyway to resolve this and help strengthen my relationships with these people? Or should I cut my losses and try once again to make new friends and hope they don't do the same thing? I just don't want to be sad anymore.

Signed,
Pam

ANSWER

Hi Pam,

With improved treatments, more and more people are living with cancer, which is now viewed as a chronic illness. While it has to be terribly disappointing to have family and friends scatter and hide when you need them most, this type of reaction is common.

Unfortunately, many people are so frightened of illness and their own mortality that they wind up turning their backs when their support is most needed. They're simply incapable of responding otherwise.

When you're feeling vulnerable and need all the love you can get, this can be extremely unnerving. Although it has to feel very personal, try not to take it personally. It has more to do with the their own frailties and limitations than their feelings about you. You've come to terms with this illness over the course of many years; you have little choice but to let them deal with this on their own terms and timeline.

In the meantime, seek out the people around you who are more capable of being supportive even if it means your friendships are limited to a paltry few. Let them know how they can help and support you in concrete ways.

Remind your friends that your life isn't defined by cancer alone. Perhaps, you can plan a fun event with a friend, maybe an overnight at a spa or casino, so she can see you in a different, more relaxed light. As you mention, support groups with people who have been there can be extremely important in your life right now.

I'm truly sorry about your recurrence and wish I had better answers. Perhaps your post will give others some food for thought and contribute to better understanding.

Warm regards,
Irene