Ask any cancer survivor and there’s a good chance they can name the friend (or friends!) who bailed after diagnosis. A quick search for “losing friends after cancer” returns 192 million results, with titles like “When My Cancer Returned, My Friends Disappeared.” Google “abandoned during cancer” and you’ll find more than 50 million results, with grim titles like “Cancer’s dirty secret: people turn their backs on you” or “Dealing with cancer and disappearing friends.” Even on our hope-filled pages, volunteers mention the loss of friends.
For cervical cancer survivor Kelly, cancer’s loss was especially painful. Diagnosed soon after her wedding, Kelly’s then-husband “freaked, but not to me.” A month later, he admitted to her what he’d told his friends. “I can’t handle this.” Six months into their marriage, he wanted a divorce.
“The divorce rather than the cancer became my ‘OMG’ thing. I was forced to rely on my friends and family,” she recalled recently. “My focus became the divorce rather than the cancer. My mom and dad chauffeured me around for treatments and appointments. My ex took everything when he left – he left me with $100. So friends stepped in, even helping with money.”
As painful as the experience was, she looks back today with a mixture of gratitude and thoughtfulness.
“You have to find something or somebody that can be your ‘one good thing,” she instructs. “For me, it was finding out who was there for me, how my friends and family cared and were there. Back then, I was freaking out. Now, I think of it as getting one cancer to get rid of the other cancer in my life.”
Given a clean bill of health post-treatment, Kelly embraced single life, focusing on the friends and family who’d been by her side and discovering who she was and who she wanted to be.
In 2007, her father, who’d been such a rock for her during treatment, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. “They told him he had three weeks to live,” she recalls. “He survived three and a half years. Hospice came to him four times. I didn’t feel like I ‘had cancer’ compared to him, but my experience made me more empathetic and understanding.”
Today, she channels that empathy into conversations with her matches, helping them to navigate the confusion, pain and even loneliness of treatment. “Even in the deepest, darkest times, there’s something you can focus on to get through it.”
For those lucky enough to be diagnosed early or who compare themselves to patients who “really” have cancer, her guidance is profoundly simple and full of reassuring compassion. “Your cancer, your story is still yours to own. No matter what level, it’s still you. You still have cancer. Yes, you may be fortunate or feel fortunate, but you have to go through the uncertainty of treatment, the fear of recurrence.”
She’s found love with Drew. He’s a humorous, quirky bowler (like her father!) that she met nearly one year to the day after her father death. “The main way my family gets through tragedy and difficulty is finding laughter,” Kelly shared. “The doctor said that one of the reasons that my dad was with us so long was all the laughter. He’d see us cry, but also laugh. I lucked out to have a family that gets along. Drew is a perfect fit into that mix.”
She’s become a champion of her own health. She encourages others to follow her lead. “If someone tells you something you don’t know, ask them what it means. (DON’T GOOGLE!) If you still don’t understand, ask a nurse or someone you can rely on for trusted information.”
“When my dad was sick, they were throwing terms out left and right. I was writing things down and taking the notes to my aunt, who is a nurse. If you don’t know what something means, someone needs to be the advocate. Someone needs to be brave enough to say ‘dumb it down for me’ until everyone understands.
To connect with Kelly, or another survivor volunteer who understands, call 877-HOPENET or visit cancerhopenetwork.org/connect.
Sarah Miretti Cassidy is the Director of Marketing & Outreach for Cancer Hope Network. Contact her at 908.879.4039 ex 20 or scassidy (at) cancerhopenetwork.org.