Over the past few years, a few friends have asked me, “I know you don’t like to talk about it, but how are you feeling?” My initial reaction is, really? How do they know that I don’t want to talk about my cancer? I never told anyone that I didn’t want to be asked how I feel. In fact, I do want people to ask me how I’m doing, even if I don’t want to go into details. Perhaps it is not about my feelings, but the person asking the question does not really want to hear my answer.
I am a 53-year-old woman who has had stage IV cancer for the past three years. My treatment has included four major surgeries, seven weeks of radiation and I am now in my seventeenth month of chemo.
I have some wonderful friends in my life who are fully there for me. Our closest friends in our community often come over on Shabbat to check up on me and keep me company. We take walks with them and go out to the theatre or dinner together. These friendships help sustain my husband and me and make us feel loved.
At the same time, I have found that other important friendships have disappeared. Many people see me and don’t even ask how I am feeling. I know it’s because they are afraid of the answer, but it can really hurt. There are even those who reach out to get together and still pretend that cancer hasn’t taken over our lives. Their discomfort with my health journey makes the experience even more isolating.
As my family and I struggle to make it through our day-to-day lives, treatment, and concerns for the future, the refusal to acknowledge our ever-present reality seems unkind and an unsettled foundation for true friendship. Our closest friends are supposed to be there for us through life’s challenges. We are supposed to enjoy the good and support each other through the most difficult. I wish I had the luxury of “not dealing with it.” To be in my life at this point, you have to be able to deal with it.
As a psychotherapist, I can understand what many of these people are going through. Cancer is frightening, and it is so painful to watch people we care about suffer. Hearing that a friend has cancer can bring up experiences of losing loved ones. It’s not easy to relive the scans, doctors appointments, chemo, and the roller coaster of emotional moments that come with that. It’s not easy to deal with what illness can steal from us. It is not easy to face mortality, and sit with the inevitability of death that every person faces.
As a cancer patient, it feels hard to understand how others could deny my reality. I need my family and friends and their support. I need to talk about what it’s like to fight for my life and need my people to sit by my side. Not to disappear when the going gets tough. The people that can cry with you, hold your hand, and show up for you- those are true friends.
I have been blessed with amazing colleagues who have been completely supportive and loving to me through my illness. I am surprised by relationships that were not so deep in the past that have intensified due to my illness; people who extended themselves to be there in the way they knew I needed.
I have my small but amazing posse of people who go with me to my chemo appointments. These friends show me that they are there for me and can sit with me literally and figuratively and bear my pain. This group of people often text me and ask specifically what date they can come to chemo with me and be my support person. I love these texts; sometimes I even cry when I receive them because I feel so loved by them. These messages are important because I would never want to ask a friend to come and sit with me for so many hours- even though I would never want to go alone. Even now, after going through chemo for sixteen months, the fact that I have a support person with me still gives me much comfort. It takes away the feeling that I am in this alone.
These support people bring me water and warm blankets and watch funny shows on Netflix with me. These actions tell me that they are with me and can handle my pain. One of my best friends from college works a few blocks away so she meets me almost every week for coffee during my break before chemo. She is also one of my biggest cheerleaders and gives me strength as I go through this battle.
I have the most amazing and supportive family. Sadly, my sister, her husband and three of four of their children have moved to Israel and can’t be with me that often. Yet they are devoted to me. My nieces and nephew-in-law have flown in from Israel these last few weeks to be with me and visit. My sister comes to visit every few months and stays for weeks at a time, to support me. My family here in the area come to chemo appointments when they can, and are loving and supportive. With all the visitors I have had, last night we had a big party in my chemo room!
I also have a group of close friends who work full-time and can’t take off to go with me but who text me before chemo and after to see how I’m doing. They don’t know how precious these texts are because it makes me feel that they are there with me even though they are not physically present in the room.
Finally, “Acheron Acheron Chaviv”, the last is the most precious and sweet: My husband, son, and daughter. They are the ones who keep me going, who have been by my side every step of the way and whose love and support are always present. They are able to sit with me in the hospital or in chemo and bear my pain, even though they have the most to lose. My son graduated from college and happens to work several blocks away from my treatment facility and even though he does not get a lunch hour on his twelve hours a day job, he shows up in my chemo room every week because he knows he is a bright light in my bleak day.
All these relationships are what helps me to fight for my life. I feel their strength when I am tired. They motivate me and remind me what I have to live for.
Overall, I would have to say that having cancer can be a very lonely experience. If you have a friend who is ill, this is what I suggest: Do not ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?” The answer your friend will give you will invariably be “Nothing, but thank you.” Personally, I respond well to tangible offers such as, “When can I make you a meal?”, or, “When can I go with you to chemo?” I know it is a genuine offer. These suggestions feel loving to me, and I never say “no.”
By acknowledging your friend’s cancer experience, inquiring about them, making specific offers of help, being emotionally available to contain the combination of fear, grief, pain, and hope that inevitably come with a cancer diagnosis- you can provide a real-life support to the person in your life who is struggling. Although it’s a very lonely journey, the people that are there with me in this way give me the strength to carry on.