Before my cancer diagnosis I was a very busy headteacher, training for an ultra-marathon. To say I didn’t really have a social life would be an understatement! Weekdays were spent at work and most Sundays were spent running. In addition to this I had a terminally ill parent on the other side of the country, so we also spent a fair amount of time driving along the M4 and back.
Friendship was definitely something that was on the back burner, and as an introvert I wasn’t overly concerned. I was busy and fulfilled in my life (or so I thought).
One of the best things about cancer has been how my friendships have grown and developed, in a way that I hadn’t predicted. Cancer gave me the gift of time. Time to reflect. Time to see people. Time to be in touch. Time to just pass time together. I have rediscovered friendships and realised that some acquaintances are actually much more than that. It has been interesting to see how these relationships have evolved, developed and changed.
At the beginning, just after diagnosis, I had so many cards and messages of support – I felt very loved. Of course life goes on, the dust settles and for some people, that is it – you don’t really hear from them again. I didn’t feel upset or disappointed by this – cancer can be tricky for people to handle (depending on their own experiences) and people of course have enough dramas in their own lives that they may be dealing with. However the rest of the cancer journey is long and boring – and that is just when you need the support and love of your friends.
So this cancer experience got me thinking about what it was that I valued from the friends that stepped up. It made me think about the kind of friend I would want to be if the circumstances were reversed.
The long-standing friends
These were the friends that I have had since school, since university or very early in my career. They know me so well, sometimes better than I know myself. Mainly though, they don’t live locally. Cancer made us prioritise meet ups – because I wasn’t stressing about work so much, I didn’t mind spending time on the road to see them. What they were especially good at was distracting me with their own lives, having their own dramas, and allowing me to just be me. I didn’t feel I needed to put on a brave face, or pretend to be better than I was. They ALWAYS remembered key dates. They messaged during each round of chemotherapy to check how I was doing. They gave me gifts throughout the treatment- not just at the beginning. They sent flowers for my final round. I felt so loved by this group.
I guess that is the beauty of friends you’ve had for years. You can pick up where you left off.
I’ve learnt not to leave it so long next time and that short messages at key moments mean so much.
The local friends
There are a couple of friends, who I have known for a long time, that live locally. What was brilliant about these friends was that their circumstances had changed and they had reduced their working hours. Conveniently they had more time. This meant I was able to see them during the week. Something I would never have done while I was working. When you see people so regularly they see your ups and downs more clearly. Both mentally and physically, so with this comes a different kind of honesty. I so valued our catch-ups: our walks, talks and endless cups of tea!
I’ve learnt that sometimes I need to share more; sometimes I need to listen more. If I can’t make time for people during the day, then I need to use my evenings. Regular contact is key.
The ‘hobby’ friends
These were the friends that I have met through running: through parkrun and goodgym (both fantastic organisations that I would highly recommend- I did both throughout treatment). I have known these friends for a relatively short space of time, but see them regularly through running. I don’t know if it is because the running community is great, or whether it’s because these people are fantastic individuals, but these friends were fantastic. They gave me practical gifts, they stopped by when I was lonely, and they met me for tea, coffee and ice cream. They pub quizzed with me (a new hobby!). Mainly they treated me as a runner, so I didn’t lose that part of my identity (even though I had lost my speed and distance). They ‘raced for life’ with me and encouraged me when I felt rubbish.
I’ve learnt not to take any friendships for granted and how important it is to be part of a community. I’ve learnt to value people as part of that community – whatever their contribution.
The ‘more than’ colleagues
We spend so much time at work don’t we? Too much sometimes (that’s another blog post!). Some of my colleagues I have known for many years, since they were newly qualified teachers! It was lovely to receive messages, cards and gifts from some colleagues throughout treatment. It helped me to feel included, remembered and still part of a team. It didn’t help alleviate the guilt of not being there, but I did feel that it validated my absence somehow.
I’ve learnt that work and friendship can and do mix – and to value that. But it’s not for everyone!
Cancer has changed me as an individual. I really hope I can take these lessons on board as I continue my journey. It will be really interesting to see how my friendships develop in the future, with those who have been on the journey with me and those who haven’t.