My life can be divided into three distinct parts: before, during and the aftermath of cancer and my friendships have spanned all three.
Friendships can add a wonderful dimension to our lives. They allow us to share experiences as well as the highs and lows of our lives, they create connection and purpose. We may share a long history or shared interest and life values, we may holiday with them or only meet for the occasional coffee. Friendships can comfort us, motivate us and encourage us. A good friendship is reliable, trusting, open and honest. But the true test of a friendship is during the difficult times.
I have a variety of friendships spanning the last 40 years of my life. My friends have picked me up when I’m down and on occasions (and rightly so) told me when I was being an arse.
Before cancer I was a party girl always up to something slightly dodgy or reckless. There was always a drama and crazy new idea in the planning stage and my friendships were mainly based on those who shared the party life, a well-used passport and a slightly faded bikini. Children slightly tempered this need and behaviour, however, the unwelcome arrival of
cancer 30 weeks in to my second pregnancy was when the party abruptly ended. The music went off and the lights went on, I was instantly marooned in a world of isolation, fear and anger.
The treatment plan was made and as my mental health unravelled so did my friendships.
Initially people were beyond kind to me and offers of food, lifts and company flowed in. But did anyone understand what it was like to be diagnosed and to be treated for cancer while pregnant and with a 14 month old to care for? No. I couldn’t even decide if I wanted a cup of tea let alone manage the logistics centre our lives had become – trying to coordinate
treatments, appointments about treatment and childcare, let alone meals, laundry and Christmas.
While I was being treated for cancer my friends saw another side to me. I was far from my fun self, I was ill, moody and scared. I saw another side to them as well. Who stepped back, who stepped away, who stepped forward and stood by my side. We all saw a different side of each other and once seen, it was hard to ignore or move on.
The friendships based around partying faltered first: it was a struggle to get through the day let alone out of the door. Then followed the friendships built around my eldest daughter: I wasn’t well enough to meet up or go to activities and ever so slowly our lives edged down different paths. The daily terror I experienced did not fit with chit chat about maternity leave, swimming lessons or the latest Early Learning toy. The friends who made insensitive comments, didn’t try to understand what I was going through or repeatedly cried at what I was going through I withdrew from, preserving my energy to get through another treatment and survive another day on Cancerland.
I probably confused people – sometimes I wanted to talk about cancer and sometimes I didn’t. This wasn’t fair on my friends, there were awkward silences and concerned faces. We negotiated that they would ask me ‘how are you?’ and I would then choose which way the conversation went. This seemed like a good middle ground.
In the aftermath of cancer I am a different person, the ravages of the physical and emotional impact of cancer have scarred me. The PTSD, the medical menopause, the fear of recurrence all take a daily toll on my mental health. Long term therapy has helped me recover but I no longer have to patience or tolerance for what I did. I’m more easily overloaded and overwhelmed now.
I grieved for a long time about what cancer changed and the friendships which ended. My life now is more like a retreat – I prefer a walk in a wood, a good book or a quiet dinner than a party or crowd. The impact of cancer exhausts me and I need quiet alone time to counteract this. The friendships I have now reflect the change in my life and the aftermath of cancer. I cherish these friendships and don’t want them tainted by cancer and I use
therapy to express my fears and keep the time with my friends unpolluted by the impact cancer has on me. They understand and accept if I go quiet near a check-up or cry near my diagnosis anniversary – they get cancer and the impact it has on me.
Bio: Rebecca has had three diagnosis of cancer and works as an Information and Support Worker at Mummy’s Star Charity supporting women who are diagnosed with cancer during or soon after pregnancy. As an experienced counsellor she has a special interest in the emotional impact of cancer. She also runs a website blogging about cancer, is extensively published on the topic and has written a book called The Two Faces of Cancer.