I had a very hard time during cancer treatment. It wasn’t the chemo or the radiation that almost did me in. It was the way I was treated by many people I had thought were my friends.
If there’s any way in which cancer is a “gift” – and that’s not at all how I would describe it — it’s the power cancer has to reveal and make vivid some uncomfortable truths. For me, it was a huge eye opener on the question of “what is a friend?” I have a lot to learn about this subject, and cancer accelerated the learning curve.
I could fill pages with the stupid, hurtful things that were said to me by this one and that one, mostly middle-aged women who fear they may be next. It’s a cliché that lots of people say and do stupid things to cancer patients and survivors.
For me it wasn’t just what was said. It was more about the dynamics of the relationships I had with the people who said so many awful things.
As the months wore on, I got to see more clearly some of my own long, unconscious patterns, and I started to see a way out. I’m not at all done yet. Cancer just ripped away some blinders and forced me to practice letting go.
I saw that for years I had “collected” people I thought were interesting, or smart, or witty, or unusual, and called them friends and thought they were. Some were and some were not, and I had little discernment between the two.
When I had a housewarming party in 2010, I invited everyone I thought was a friend and packed the house. When I needed friends during cancer treatment, few of these people rose to the occasion. Several people I never heard from again. Some were there right away with their own agendas, swooping in on a crisis, feeling important, feeding off the emotionality and urgency of the drama. Some revealed themselves quickly, dropping me like a hot potato when I wouldn’t socialize on their terms, while I was undergoing treatment, no less.
There were long-term friends who were there as always, just them and just me, only it just happened now to be crisis mode and would one day, again, not be crisis mode.
There were people who came out of the woodwork and offered help. I was new to the neighborhood, yet neighbors were right there for me. My backyard neighbors brought baskets of food to my porch and watched over me, calling me one night when they noticed I had not turned lights on. Other neighbors took my trash bins to the curb and back every week for a year. Another, down the street, told me to call him any time of day or night for any need, and I did, one night when I was scared by a stranger ringing the doorbell. There was a client who made a batch of chicken bone broth and left it on my doorstep the day of each chemo treatment. Lots of good people were available for rides and errands.
A friend is much more than someone who “does stuff” in a crisis. What I asked for mostly in emails I sent out was for people to pray for me. By that, I meant I wanted them to hold me in their heart and send me good energy, and many did. One old political comrade wrote to me that even though he’s an atheist, he’d pray for me—I knew he would and I love him for that.
One complicated woman was with me through thick and thin throughout treatment, calling me almost every day to check in, going to some appointments, bringing me a celebratory burrito at the end of each chemo cycle, cheering me on as a “trooper.” I knew from past experiences with her that she’s very judgmental and controlling. Yet, with no family to take care of me, I made a devil’s bargain by having her close. There was a subtext in all of our communications: I was to look to her as the arbiter of all things. Not just all things related to health, but all things.
When I had barely started to recuperate my strength and was no longer just a “patient,” she turned on me. Her whole tone shifted with no explanation. She started calling me to grouse and even yell at me, repeatedly. She was furious about the kind of dog I was going to get and screamed her rage into the phone. She told me what to pack for my trip to Hawaii, what I should eat/not eat, when I should stop wearing a hat to cover my freakish short hair.
I felt beholden to her for all her real help and I also felt hectored and hounded by her. When I finally told her to stop asking for continual updates about my hair, she made it easy. “That’s it,” she said, “this friendship is over.” Just like that. I knew that might happen. She’d been along for the ride, a co-conspirator in a year of misery. I’d seen her do similar with others.
I was relieved to be free from her verbal abuse and whatever other games she was playing. I had allowed her close despite knowing her to be manipulative. Granted, I had done this out of need and during a crisis.
By the end of treatment, I had a better understanding of who is a real friend. They are the people who saw that it was still “me” through the process.
What’s everyone else? Not an enemy. I came up with a useful term: friendly acquaintance. That’s what most people are to me. I can like them, enjoy chatting with them. Until it’s clear that we really “get” each other, and unless we are treating each other kindly, as equals, we’re not there yet as friends. Nor do I need anyone to be.
That’s key. I don’t need or want a cast of characters for a party. A few good friends will do.