Friday, September 6, 2013

3 REASONS FRIENDSHIPS FADE POST-CANCER

(Copyright © 2013 The Big C and Me)
I wrote a blog post back in January 2013 about how our relationships change at various points during our cancer treatment, how the demands on our time changes, and how this can leave us feeling invisible. It struck a chord with many, so I thought it might be important to post again. Maybe you (or someone you know) can relate...

One of the reasons I love reading other cancer blogs is they remind me that I'm not alone in how I feel. I comment on these blogs when I can, sometimes just a few words, but sometimes my sentences turn into missives. And that's when I know I've touched an internal nerve, the one that says, You have to blog about this. That's what happened this morning. I was reading a new blog by Lisa Quintana, a Stage IV breast cancer blogger I discovered via the Facebook page of the ever-insightful Nancy's Point

On January 1st, Lisa Quintana wrote a post entitled Being Invisible and Drawing In. "I remember when I was first diagnosed with stage IV cancer, people started pulling back," Lisa writes. "They figured I was just going to die anyway and they didn't want to be there when I did it. Too bad that was in 1998 and I'm still here. Their loss." (Did I mention she is funny too?)

I don't have Stage IV breast cancer, but I completely relate to Lisa's description of how it feels to become invisible among friends. As Lisa aptly states, "Sometimes when you are diagnosed, you don't have the energy to put into relationships; quite frankly, you are just trying to stay alive. Sometimes the side effects make it so you draw in."

Cancer changes our relationships, that's a cold, hard truth. While some of these relationships are strengthened by our dance with death, others are unfortunately, inevitably, irrevocably weakened. 

As a cancer patient, no matter where you fall on the spectrum, you absolutely have to "draw in" your energies to focus on yourself, your treatment, your health. And therein lies the Catch-22. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so much energy to go around, so our time falls into snippets. 

And those snippets, over time, get snipped down even further to make room on a social calendar now packed with things we never wanted to do: constant research about our medical condition so we can aptly advocate for ourselves; medical records to continually request (and keep organized); a variety of physicians and nurses and assistants who are now a weirdly comforting part of our lives; pills (and other treatments) that forever alter our bodies; exercises we incorporate to maintain our health and our ROM, the new foods we eat that don't contain hormones and pesticides (and new ways to cook said food), the new cleaning products and grooming aids we purchase free of BPAs and other chemicals; the new friendships with other cancer peeps we cultivate to keep our sanity (a necessity, IMHO), the blog we start as a way to process all these changes, the inner work we must do to compartmentalize our fears of recurrence and death... well, you get the picture.

Is it any wonder we are left with just a thimble full of time to devote to the rest of our lives not touched by cancer?

And exactly how do we do all this while trying to live less stressfully? We don't. We can't. 
But it does help explain the changes in all of our relationships.

It still bites when a friend or family member no longer finds the time to keep up with us — even though we barely keep up with them. (Which came first... us being preoccupied, or them being afraid of our needing more than they are capable of giving?)

I've written before about the phenomenon and intricacies of "hiding" that happens post-surgery, as well as the "checkouts" that leave their mark on our psyches. The checkouts are the people who can’t deal with our cancer — or our vulnerability. They don’t know what to say to us. They don't know what to do for us. And so they chose the path of least resistance: They do nothing, mistakenly thinking no contact is good contact — or at least better than awkward contact.

Here's my take on the "fading away" of friendships post cancer: 
  1. People are afraid of death and so they distance themselves. Sometimes this lasts a few days, sometimes a few months, and sometimes they fade right into oblivion.
  2. People misread our inability to give the same level of time and attention we gave when we were healthy. They may even misinterpret this to mean we no longer want them in our lives. 
  3. People fade away — and sometimes that is a good thing. Recognize "fair-weather" friends. Untie the reins, loosen the grip, release the energy required to keep up those friendship. How else can we create space for the all-weather friends? 
    Coincidentally, another Lisa — Lisa Bonchek Adams — is also blogging her way through metastatic breast cancer, and just happened to write about the topic of isolation yesterday. Her post, simply entitled "Alone," describes the hiding and the isolation she feels. "There is a fine line between giving space and putting distance," Lisa writes. "Only true friendships are going to make it under these circumstances. Sometimes the isolation comes from being shut out. Sometimes it comes from locking yourself away."

    Dang Catch-22.

    Have you experienced any of the emotions mentioned above? If so, please feel free to share your thoughts below. It's so important for us all to know we're not alone, no  matter where on the "journey" we fall. :-)

    24 comments:

    1. I remember this post, it was a great one then and it is a good one to put up as a reminder... :)

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      1. You have a great memory, Launna! Thanks for reading, as always.

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    2. Renn - so beautifully articulated!! Thank you for this and also for your comment on my humble little blog. You are so right about this relationship reality and it doesn't just occur in the acute phase of treatment. I am six years out now and my energy is still low and my friends are sick of hearing about it. They just want me to act 'normal' like I was pre- BC! All of life is post BC for me now...this is MY(our) new reality. And, it can be very hard at times. Thank you for this post!!

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      1. I suspect this may also happen in "non-cancer" life... i.e., is this a process of getting older, or of being diagnosed? Maybe others can chime in. (I sense another blog post here!)

        PS Hear you on the energy. Mine is nowhere near what it used to be. Tamoxifen (I think) is the culprit. But that's ANOTHER blog post! ;-)

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    3. Thank you for re-posting. Oh yes, this has been a problem. When I was going through treatment I had a few people who were not happy with me because I didn't answer my email quickly or return phone calls with 24 hours. For the most part these people are gone from my life. I don't miss them.

      And then there are a few who had personalities that I couldn't cope with then or now. The folks who would get me on the phone or send me lengthy emails about how unhappy they were in their lives, marriages, jobs and so on. The negativity made me feel worse about everything and hearing about how sucky someone's boss was for the umpteenth time when I was so tired I could hardly sit up just made me crazy. I felt like asking, "Wanna trade places?"

      It was my active listener at Cander Support France who finally just said, "You know, victoria, anything or anyone that makes you feel worse is something or somebody you need out of your life. Go for it." I did and she was right - it DID make things a lot better. :-)

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      1. Victoria, I have been thinking a lot about this issue and I'm drawing the conclusion that no matter what happens to us in life, we ALL will feel better and more understood if we connect with others going through similar issues. And that is the beauty of BC blogging and this awesome community.

        What your Cancer Support France person said to you was very wise, and it's true for all of us no matter what we are dealing with (cancer, death, any loss or transition or life challenge): Time passes quickly, and none of us should waste it doing anything (or hanging out with anyone) that makes us feel worse when we're done. Thanks for sharing!!

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    4. Renn it is amazing how much relationships change post cancer and this post is spot on. I also agree with what Victoria spoke about when realizing if someone makes you feel worse there's no need for them in our lives!
      At the same time the people that are out of my life now I don't miss at all. I also treasure those that are in my life.

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      1. Susan, you are so right. Cancer brings clarity with a capital C, doesn't it? ;-)

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    5. Love this post and the comments. I definitely relate to what Victoria and Holly wrote. I distanced myself from certain people because they didn't seem to understand that I didn't have energy. I just needed to rest. I also had/have people complain that I don't email like I used to, and they take it personally. But the worst (the best?) was a friend who was there throughout, but kept venting to me, dumping all her problems on me, like I was pre-cancer Eileen. My resources were so low, empty really, that I'd feel more exhausted just being around this person. I spoke to her about it very directly, but she still didn't get it. I just stopped responding to her emails or voicemails. And I didn't care. I realized she had always been a parasite in my life but cancer put me in a place where I acknowledged it and took action to protect my energy.

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      1. Eileen, O so relate to what you wrote. Part of why I blog is to connect with other cancer patients so we all feel less alone. But the other part to why I blog is to shed light on the cancer experience — not just for those going through it, but for those who are NOT. Hopefully, they in turn will be better friends to the folks in their lives. Your friend (and I use the term loosely!) is one of those people who could benefit from some cancer patient enlightenment... but sadly she never will. You did the right thing by loosening the reigns and letting her fall away. Protecting your energy is absolutely the only way to deal with cancer. Thank you for sharing how you did it with a less-than friend.

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    6. dear Renn,

      this is a subject that both hugh and I dealt with during his cancer, then mine while he was 2 years in. we tried our best not to be isolated, and for the most part our friends and family were extremely supportive. but strangely, 3 sisters to whom I was very close, began to pay very little attention to us both; I sent regular updates to friends and family (scattered across the globe) and got incredibly positive feed-back and tons of loving, compassionate replies, followed by phone calls, care pkgs, cards, et. al. but hardly a response from my sisters, whom I loved from the day they were born. finally, the contact dwindled and I decided to stop spending precious emotional energy - maybe they needed a break, or were scared themselves, I don't know. but once I was diagnosed with st IV met BC, I knew I just could not have them in my life. there were a few e-mails here and there, but they never asked me directly how they could help, or expressed they felt bad for us - just silly ploys to obtain information. I finally figured out that they feed on drama, and play ridiculous games of one-ups-man -ship about whose heard the latest, speculation on survival, what doctors are predicting what - these are women in their 50's, not teenagers! I guess that it's a case of left-over childhood issues of jealousy and just plain immaturity. I never saw it coming, and when it came to light I was devastated. but thankfully, I immediately cut off all contact. and I cannot express in words the relief I felt as I released my self from the pain and hurt. now, they know that I have a new cancer and will shortly commence a long course of treatment; but not one of them has reached out to me - so I know I did the right thing. and when hugh died suddenly in may, it was the same lack of concern and contact. so that pretty much sealed the deal. we have to accept that in many cases we will never have the answer to "why" for sure - but we do not have to tolerate the awful neglect and lack of caring. turning away from relationships that were once so precious has been hard, mostly because I took on the emotional question of why, and what could I do to remedy the situation. once I realized it was not my place to do so, I let it all go. it was the best thing I could ever have done, and I am at total peace, able to feel tremendous gratitude for the people I know love me and are cheering me on - many whom I have never even met, who feel much more like sisters than those who share my blood with. thanks for revisiting this post - the other comments and your replies have helped reaffirm that the most important thing I must do to survive is to take care of myself.

      much love, dear friend, XOXO

      Karen, TC

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      1. Hi Karen!!! I'm so sad to hear about your sisters... not just one, not just two, but THREE sisters not being there for you. OY. I am a big believer in what goes around, comes around. When people are that messed up, and unable to show care and concern, I do believe that that behavior will catch up to them in some way in the end. Maybe it happens after we are long gone. But I believe it happens. And you're right, it's the trying to figure out the "why" that causes us the most grief! Sometimes, we'll just never know why, and realizing when that is, that's a biggie. You absolutely did the right thing by releasing your sisters and focusing your energies on the people who *are* there for you. You said it best in your last sentence: "The most important thing I must do to survive is to take care of myself." Amen, sistah! Sending you lots of love. xoxo

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      2. thanks renn. a little update. my dearest, earth angle sister got married and 2 of the 3 sisters were invited, for awkward and complicated reasons. I decided I wanted my EAS to not have to worry about tensions, so I reached out to the sisters so there could be some semblance of civility and maybe letting bygones be bygones. they barely responded - only posed for a few photos with smiles, but nothing personal to me. they never responded in any even remotely personal way. I am glad I did it for my EAS, but it leaves me sad, and I can't seem to staunch the hot tears of hurt. it seems so much more hurtful on top of all the sadness of loss. I am mad at myself for talking the talk, but falling down on the walking part. that's what some of these situations do to us when we revisit them - they confuse us and stir up emotions we didn't even know we could still feel. dammit. I guess we have to accept that along with digging deep to find hope and possible reconciliation -there are no guarantees.

        love and thanks, renn, Karen XOXO

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      3. Karen, thanks so much for your update. I don't understand why cancer is ignored completely when people relate to us. Either a) they are so engrossed in themselves they have forgotten (as DGlass me above makes note of), or they think because you "look" fine you must be fine, case closed. Those have been the two most common situations I've encountered. Please don't be hard on yourself. You have tried to gather the family, it ain't meant to be, there's little more you can do. I'm not sure confronting them would serve any purpose (unless you need to let them know exactly how you feel, in which case, I say go for it!) Keep us posted, I;m sure everyone would be interested to hear any further developments. Thanks for being such a faithful reader, and for always offering up you wisdom. We can all learn a great deal from you, Karen! I know I do. xoxo

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      4. PS Diane (DGlassMe)'s comment is below (not above). FYI!

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    7. oh Renn... you seem to give me what I need when I need it. :) I am too tired to comment more. but this what what i needed to read tonight, before I turn off the lights and commit to yet another surgery. much love, monkeyME

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      1. Shannon! Whatever it was you needed to hear, I'm glad you found it here. It sounds like you have made a decision. {{{hugs}}} to you my friend. I will be thinking of you and watching for your new blog posts. xoxoxo

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    8. Renn, I find this in some ways fascinating. I've come to determine people think about themselves ~80% or more of the time, then their spouse or children which really leaves no time for others unless they're of an unusual type. The other thing I find is non-Americans seem to have more time or make more time to show their concern. Most likely due to higher family values.

      I'm exhausted from all this so I don't have the energy to figure them all out. My best friends remain my dawgs, just wish I would have taught one of them to drive in order to shuttle me to and from surgeries.

      My little sister went out of her way to come out after my last surgery which was very kind of her. Dad doesn’t know, other sister is lost in her highfalutin world, and brother is an alcoholic. We all have our problems. I have some real nice dawg friends from all over California who have been helping with transport and a co-worker that hikes with me on occasion. So for now I'm happy to have a handful of people who seem to care.

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    9. Diane, you make great points! Especially that people are usually only thinking about themselves. It's like the old adage (paraphrasing here big time), when you're worried that other people are looking at you, don't be; they are too busy looking at themselves. We do have our problems, that's for sure. Lucky are those who also have dawgs! Still laughing about you wishing you had taught one of yours to drive! ;-)

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    10. A very good post, Renn, for reality that they don't put in the cancer brochures. It also reminds me of Nancy's post where she discussed bloggers who stop blogging. It's not the same situation at all, but I do become so attached to the ladies and gents who blog and tweet and share in the forums. ~Catherine

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      1. Hi Catherine... I know what you mean, it's the disappearing act that occurs, whether it's friends offline or online — it feels the same, the fading away. It's a loss, plain and simple. And cancer is often a long string of losses, some minute, some profound, all of them felt very deeply, all of them life-altering. xoxo

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    11. Oh, Renn, this is so good. I missed it the first time around, having been stuck away from home for three months to get treated weekly for metastatic breast cancer. Friendships are very fragile, and I admit that I have not kept up my friendships as well as I did in the past. Some are fading. I've got the double whammy of getting divorced and getting Stage IV simultaneously. Talk about awkward friendships! This was really hard to take. A scourge, actually. Thanks for the wonderful reflection on how cancer changes us. xo

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      1. Jan: Oh that really is the ultimate double whammy... divorce coupled with cancer. My goodness that is so many deep emotions to process, so much loss (as I mention above to Catherine) to feel. A scourge is a terrifically descriptive word for it. I'm so sorry you have to deal with all this crap. Friendships are fragile, but I gotta say, our online support friendships ROCK and they feel like solid rock. I never feel alone with my BC sistahs. I hope you feel that support too. We are hearer for you!

        {{{hugs}}} to you. I hope you are enjoying those trees and that garden!

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    Your comments are encouraging — and encouraged!