When Sean was diagnosed, we knew we were going to face his cancer together. We counted on lots of doctors visits, lots of chemotherapy, a few surgeries here and there, lots of sleepless nights, lots of tears, and a few hysterical laughing sessions. We counted on each other.
Some of the things we hadn't counted on were just how many sleepless nights we'd both get, how many ER visits we'd have, how much each pill would actually cost on its own, how emotionally close we'd grow together... and how many friends we'd each lose along the way.
Just as becoming nauseated from the chemo treatments seemed to be a normal reaction for Sean, watching our group of friends dwindle down to less than a handful was a normal part of the cancer experience. It didn't always feel that way though. It was often confusing, erratic and awkward. Sometimes, we could tell when it was happening and sometimes we seemed to wake up the next day to a sudden drop in people around us who knew how to be supportive. And while we both felt an intense sense of betrayal at times, it's been long enough for me to understand that the friends that we lost while we battled Sean's cancer weren't bad people. It has also been long enough for me to realize that we didn't lose these friends so much as we had merely found ourselves in an incredibly isolating and lonely situation. Cancer is lonely. Illness is lonely. Being a patient is lonely. Being a caregiver is lonely.
What Sean and I went through together is something that not everyone will understand. There are those out there who have (unfortunately) been in our shoes but most will never really know what battling cancer at such a young age and tender stage of life is like. Many of our friends tried their hardest to go through that experience with us, and I cannot (and Sean would not) fault them for their efforts. What an inspiring and noble thing it was for people to care for us as they did, even when they couldn't do anything more to help us than to wish us well. I believe that Sean gained this understanding long before I did. When he died, he didn't feel as though his friends had abandoned him, and I know now that it is because he knew they hadn't. He simply understood his situation in a way they didn't, and was able to see things from their perspective. That's one of the many blessings I saw from my husband. It's taken me longer to arrive at the same conclusion, but I'll reiterate that the friends that we lost while we battled Sean's cancer weren't bad people.
And here are five reasons why:
1. You did just spring this news on them.
Of course Sean's diagnosis came out of the blue for us, but none of our friends were expecting the news either. They were taken aback just as much as we were, and they faced the challenge of dealing with this news without the luxury of being able to ask Sean's doctors all of the questions that were pulsing through their minds.
2. If people have never faced challenges in their life, they won't be able to empathize.
It's hard to fault people for having a blessed life. While watching our friends' lives thrive sparked jealousy and contempt at times, Sean and I were truly happy that our friends had lives that weren't complicated and terrifying. For many of our friends, it wasn't possible for them to relate to the pain and the fear that we were experiencing because they had never experienced those feelings. I think that Sean always knew this and accepted it.
3. They don't know what to say to help, and they don't want to make things worse.
Really, what do you say to someone who has cancer that won't remind them about it or make them feel worse than they already do? I don't think I have the answer to this yet. I think some of our friends decided that since they had no idea what they could do to help ease our burden, that it was best if they didn't bother us at all.
4. Seeing you like this reminds them that they're not immune.
When you're 22, you're at a good place in life. Your childhood is behind you, but not so far behind that you've forgotten how to have fun. Your future is ahead of you, but not so far ahead that you can't start making real plans for yourself. That's where Sean was when he was forced to confront his own mortality, and that was terrifying for him. For many of our friends, seeing him forced to face this reminded them that this could happen to any of them, at any time. Seeing a life you care about become so fragile will absolutely remind you of your own vulnerability, and that's enough to create distance.
5. They're scared.
These people loved us. They cared for us. Seeing us battle cancer scared them because they didn't want anything bad to happen to us, and there was absolutely nothing they could do about any of it. They were scared that Sean would get sick and be in a lot of pain (he did and he was). They were scared that the treatments wouldn't work (sometimes they didn't). They were scared that Sean would die (and he did).
I think it's a natural part of the cancer experience to lose friends along the way. That doesn't make it easy or pleasant and it doesn't mean that resentment and anger won't surface. But people don't always know what the helpful thing to do or say is and they don't always know if they should call to check up on you or if they should leave you in peace. Cancer is awkward for everyone. It's scary and confusing. Friends are friends because they want to support you, to take away your pain, and to provide comfort. So when there's no good way to do that, or there's just no way to do that, they start to fall away. They haven't forgotten you, and they haven't abandoned you. They're not even waiting for you to make your move to save the relationship because they realize that you have so much to deal with. They are doing the best they can, and even when that means they drop out of your life, they are still good people. They are still your friends.
For anyone who is battling cancer, especially you young adults, don't fault these people. Love them anyway, even when they let you down. Though much of your time is undoubtedly spent focused on your well-being and health, take a moment to reflect on the friendships you have and appreciate what they have meant to you and what you know they have meant to your friends. Appreciate that this terrible thing that is happening to you is affecting them too. Understand that these people are doing the best they can, just like you are. No one should be faulted for that.