Oil and Water: Cancer and Friendship Don’t Mix

What causes friendships and metastatic cancer to repel one another like two magnets? The metastatic breast cancer diagnosis I received three and a half years ago sent most of my friends and family scattering like roaches under appliances in a suddenly lit kitchen. In our dark hours we expect relationships to hold us like a hug, not release us like dead rodents from a hawk’s talons. Roaches and rodents? Can you sense my residual resentment? Yet I must admit, my own qualities that once made me a good friend prior to my diagnosis disappeared right along with those long lost friends and relatives.

Which way did they go?
I’ve arrived at two posdible explanations for my perception of their disloyalty. First, some expressed disbelief in my stage four diagnosis (I just don’t look unwell enough). Second, their inability to hold, like Hamlet held up Yorick’s skull, a momento mori in their hands and contemplate their own life and inescapable death. Both explanations require the understanding that metastatic means incurable, and finding out that I have metastatic cancer started a timer set to explode in my body on some future expiration date. Some people have admitted they just cannot handle losing me and so opt out early from my life to avoid the pain of my death. This makes little sense seeing as how none of us really know when or how we will not awaken from permanent unconsciousness sometime in the future.

So what’s my excuse?
There’s a few reasonable explanations to rationalize my own poor qualities as a friend. The very basic qualities required to maintain close, loving relationships don’t align well with lapses in memory, time warps, and hours stolen by appointments. Not to mention the side effects of my medications and the illness’s own special effects on my body and mind, wreak havoc on my ability to make any long term plans. Sometimes, I disappear into a dark place where no one can reach me at all. It comes with the territory, though I bounce back quickly from the depths.

No wonder I must look like a walking can of Raid ready to spray mortality everywhere I show up. I’m not too hard on myself when I admit I just suck at remembering any appointment that I forget to make room for in my near-empty calendar. My daily to-do lists look like vague carbon copies of one another. If not written down and placed in my wallet or in my notes on my iPhone, the “do’s” don’t get done.

Even still, the lapses in time and how much longer it takes me to do even menial tasks than it used to, eats up the daylight before I know it’s nighttime. By then it’s too late for phone calls I meant to return to people who reside on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. They get pushed out with a quick apology text message until the following day, or week, or month. Perhaps it’s even too late in some cases to save relationships that once were dear to me.

Another problem I perpetually try to solve is adopting a new way to dress to allow for the changes in my body including lost weight, lost cleavage, and swolen legs. It sometimes takes an hour to get appropriately dressed for the day. Makeup, which I wore little of prior to systemic cancer, never took this long. Dropping weight and the pain from neuropathy have led me to waer flowy, hippie chic garnments, which grab attention and compliments. But the time it takes for so many costume changes and the one-way arguements with my closet could be better spent having lunch with one of my good friends. Or returning a long overdue call to my husband’s best friend’s wife or my stepsister. I love these people dearly, yet they’ve got to feel like I’m some self-centered asshole by now.

For the attention span challenged, a list!
A short list of new shit qualities brought on by my intermitable disease that eat away at my time:
1. Insomnia
2. Waking up past noon (see #1)
3. Doctors and medically related appointments
4. Husbandus interruptus
5. Strange eating habits and mealtimes
6. No alcohol consumption
7. Chronic lateness
8. Fiscal challenges
9. Visible physical changes
10. Prescription medications and their side effects
11. Chronic fatigue
12. Chronic pain
13. ADHD causing #12 to some degree and exacerbated by my cancer
14. Constipation and too much time “en pot”
15. Discussions about #14

The list reads like a print out on an old dot matrix printer. It goes intermitably on and on. The list of my friends, however, shortens in direct proportion to my cancer-related excuse list.

Your My Best Friend
My husband once was my truest and most trusted companion and confidante. We had happiness and deep physical and intellectual compatibility. Our goals and values pretty much were sympatico. Now, we are simply trying to find new footing after his long bout with depression and the emotional backlash against my cancer. His dysthemia seems to have lifted for the most part with the exception of post depression fatigue. The backlash erupts with yelling and ugly words from time to time, sending me tearfully away to wonder why the fuck I am giving up my truncated life to be with him.

We try to mindfully navigate the difficult pot holes and bumps on the twisted road we find ourselves fearfully driving. We seek the hopeful sparks of joy to reignite our once close and loving relationship to find a future thatcwirks for us both. The good and the bad with my husband ebb and flow leaving me without intellectual stimulation and regular hugs, so my requirement for outside interactions changes according to our stability as a couple. If my needs don’t get met for long stretches, the loneliness becomes nearly unbearable.

It’s a paradox, while some couples make it through, others blow their partnerships to pieces like a tumor being shot with radiation. Usually the men cannot handle the loss or prior to loss, some cannot make the adjustment to becoming a caregiver. It’s no one person’s fault, per se.

Mea Culpa
I forgive anyone who could not go the long haul with me as they fall out of my tree of life. I also try to forgive myself for the above growing list of shitty excuses. Currently, I am attempting to reach out into the metastatic breast cancer community of people to find others like myself and who require no explanations or excuses. However, those I meet in social media or through this blog suffer from similar problems and time sucks just like me. And they live in every part of the country and the world making it difficult to grab coffee. The conferences coming up may provide me with a few good contacts from this neck of the woods. With the caveat that I may or may not be able to attend for one of the reasons on the short shit list.

In the meantime, I try my very best to leave a little of myself with people who come into my life and those who regularly check in on my well being. I do hope I can reconcile all of this sometime soon. In the spirit of friendship let me apologize to those I may have inadvertently alienated and ask forebarance from those who remain.

Thank you for being a part of my difficult life. You mean more to me than you know.

Ilene

Female. East coast transplant living in the Bay Area of California. Living with Stage IV breast cancer. Married to the coolest guy in the universe who occasionally suffers from serious depression. Love my stepsons, although I never thought I'd have that thankless job - ever! And my best friend Simon is also my cat. How I have survived with stage IV: treatments including chemo and surgery; palliative oncology; tenacity; a dark sense of humor; support groups; and my newly reinvented career as a vintage and antiques maven. Some days I miss the old me who led a well respected and well paid life as a business strategist in high tech. So much for that. I blog to simply share my experiences and my poetic approach with others who have cancer of any kind or with their care givers and those who love them. If one person at the very least finds a little commonality or a friend out in the ether tor a smile, a common nod about this experience, or even a link to assistance, then I have accomplished a small but extraordinarily meaningful goal. Go team.

6 thoughts on “Oil and Water: Cancer and Friendship Don’t Mix

  1. I was moved by this post. True friends won’t abandon someone with metastases. I took care of my friend until she died. It was hard emotionally, but I loved her. When I was diagnosed, several so-called friends and my husband walked away. I think they didn’t want to be close to me so they wouldn’t feel sad.

    1. Helping a friend or a family member during the end of life is a process for both the patient and the caregiver. The gift humility, spiritual depth, and less fear of our own death comes from our own giving love and strength by staying at someone’s side. We may have lost people to their own fears of mortality, but they’re missing the opportunity that’s in itself of the highest order. My best friend died in my arms with hospice when we were 37. My father died of brain cancer as I sat with him for two weeks in the hospital with hospice. Both difficult but I tap into the experiences when I lay awake with thoughts of my own life’s end.

      Take care of yourself – what I’ve found in the last 3+ years are people I least expected came to my side, and new friendships with people who can understand what I’m going through become closer and more dear to me as time goes on…

    2. Helping a friend or a family member during the end of life is a process for both the patient and the caregiver. The gift humility, spiritual depth, and less fear of our own death comes from our own giving love and strength by staying at someone’s side. We may have lost people to their own fears of mortality, but they’re missing the opportunity that’s in itself of the highest order. My best friend died in my arms with hospice when we were 37. My father died of brain cancer as I sat with him for two weeks in the hospital with hospice. I suppose sometimes we are forced to look in the mirror, not to frighten us but to make us brave and see that death is part of life, we are not, then we are born into this life and thus we must not be again…and it’s not as frightening when the process is experienced in a number of ways. Thank you for reading. I wrote this response right after your comment and forgot to hit reply! Sorry to seem so lackadaisical!
      💜🙏🏻

    3. Helping a friend or a family member during the end of life is a process for both the patient and the caregiver. The gift humility, spiritual depth, and less fear of our own death comes from our own giving love and strength by staying at someone’s side. We may have lost people to their own fears of mortality, but they’re missing the opportunity that’s in itself of the highest order. My best friend died in my arms with hospice when we were 37. My father died of brain cancer as I sat with him for two weeks in the hospital with hospice.

  2. I lost friends-even the ones who said they’d be there no matter what. Now I have virtual friends. I also don’t put myself out there to find real life friends as they just don’t get it. I should find a support group to attend but chemobrain makes me forget to go to meetings. Of course subconsciously I think it’s deliberate because I really like my own time these days.

    1. Holy crap I’m in the same boat with you – I completely forget about groups, yoga classes, appointments and I will get caught up doing something inane and lose track of my time – truly wanting to do something more meaningful like volunteering or using my powers of large group speaking engagements is out of the question for now. Perhaps when my husband fully recovers he can be of more help and then I can do more…if I make it that long. As I like to say sarcastically- I’m doing fine except for the cancer!

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