In this post, blog editor Caroline writes about the expectations we can have about friends and family when we go through cancer treatment, and what we can do when the reality isn’t quite what we’d hoped.
I thought I knew what cancer looked like, long before I received my diagnosis. Cancer is everywhere. Like most of us, I’d seen the films, read the books, and even written my own cancer-themed fiction as a particularly morose young teen (!). Cancer meant harsh treatments, hair loss, and silk scarves. Breaking Bad aside, most fictional representations of cancer seem to rely on a few key tropes: cancer patient looks pale, languishes in bed, and is called upon by kind-hearted family and friends who bring endless casseroles and work hard on fulfilling the all-important bucket list. And if you’re a really lucky cancer patient, you might also get a handsome model to hold your hand through chemotherapy – just like Samantha in Sex and the City.
I’ve been living with cancer – now incurable – for just over two years, and it still surprises me to write that I haven’t ticked many of these ‘TV cancer’ boxes. I’ve had a few operations, but I’ve been hospitalised just once. I haven’t had chemotherapy (instead, I had immunotherapy) and I still have a full head of hair. My skin glows an acceptable amount (which is not something I find myself saying very often). Friends have gathered at my bedside – once, for a post-op takeaway – but I’ve never had any offers of help to fulfil my bucket list. And I still haven’t received a casserole!
The ubiquitous ‘cancer casserole’ was one of the topics that came up in the Relationships workshop at this year’s Shine Connect. While many conference attendees spoke about the wonderful support they’d received from friends and family, there were also plenty of young people with cancer who felt let down by the reactions they’d seen upon being diagnosed. Cancer rarely looks the way it does on TV, which can confuse us and the ones we love. So when we really want a casserole (or a bucket list safari adventure) and it isn’t coming our way, what can we do?
Don’t take it personally
If you are abandoned by friends or family in your hour of need, it will hurt. I’m sorry. A cancer diagnosis at any stage is a life-or-death moment – and as anyone living with cancer will tell you, its effects last a lifetime. It’s incredibly hard to cope when close friends decide that this is the time to leave you to your own devices, and even more difficult when family members also choose to keep their distance. Isn’t your family supposed to show up for you, no matter what?
Try not to take others’ behaviour personally. We all tense up when we hear the word ‘cancer’ – and the diagnosis you’ve received will have made an impact on everyone in your life. Some friends may be too scared to confront the fact that someone they love has a life-threatening illness, while others might find themselves reflecting on their own mortality for the first time. Cancer seems like an old person’s disease (how many smokers do you know who say ‘yeah, I’ll probably get lung cancer when I’m older, but I don’t care’?), so getting a diagnosis in your twenties, thirties, or forties is particularly shocking. Some people run towards danger, while others run for the hills.
Cancer doesn’t necessarily bring people together the way it does in films. For each person who decides to rekindle a childhood friendship and drive across the country to take you to chemotherapy, there will be another who crosses the street to avoid bumping into you outside Costa. My own experiences of friends, family, and cancer taught me that if I had a strained or distant relationship with someone before my illness, my life-or-death situation wasn’t going to be the glue that mended us – however much I might have wanted it to be.
Lower your expectations
It can be difficult to lower your expectations when it comes to friends and family, particularly when social media is awash with other people’s stories of being supported through a cancer diagnosis – or you turn up to treatment to find that you’re the only one on the ward who doesn’t need a ‘guest chair’. So your living room isn’t awash with flowers and cards? While many people may be worrying about you, it might not occur to them to communicate their thoughts through gifts or surprises. But is there someone who remembers to text you on treatment day, or asks follow-up questions when you casually mention that you can’t meet them for lunch because you have a medical appointment that day? They might seem small, but those interactions can be just as meaningful as a box of chocolates or a stack of magazines – and they show that you haven’t been forgotten.
Ask – or encourage a friend to ask on your behalf
Sometimes friends and family don’t show up because they don’t know what to do. One of my friends told me that she didn’t get in touch while I was on long-term sick leave because it was an emotional time, and she thought that I would need space. In difficult situations, friends might treat us the way that they would want to be treated – and sometimes that approach can be different to what we expect. Personally, I didn’t need ‘space’ during immunotherapy. I’d have preferred it if people had come over for a chat, had dinner, or just hung out and watched TV. If you think that some of your friends have misjudged the way that you would like to be treated, ask them to do something different. It would be brilliant if we were all mind readers – and managing your friendships can be exhausting when you’re also managing your health, and worrying about the future – but asking for specific support may save you some heartache. If you don’t feel up to it, see if you can enlist a close friend or relative to quietly speak to others on your behalf.
Vent – to someone who gets it
Even the most understanding friends and members of your family will always be outsiders. They have to process their own feelings about your cancer diagnosis, and you can’t control that. They might be able to listen to how you feel, but if they haven’t been through cancer themselves then they may struggle to understand. And that’s where Shine comes in! We support thousands of people in their twenties, thirties, and forties who are living with and beyond cancer, and we provide a safe space to share stories and experience, as well as just have fun. Nobody will understand you as well as someone who has been through similar struggles, and made it out the other side.