Cancer’s dirty little secret: people turn their backs on you

The public face of cancer is a smiling woman who looks damned good without hair. She’s bold and brave. She’s strong. She’s a fighter. She dances in the operating room before her mastectomy. (This blog post by Nancy’s Point tells the story.)

She’s surrounded by people who love her and she has a caring medical team. She is one of hundreds at fundraising events wearing her “Survivor” t-shirt proudly. She has a team who runs on her behalf with signs that say “Team Jane.”

The public face of cancer is a victory dance. It is a gathering of our better selves. Cancer is the disease that makes us heroes to those around us because of our courage.

The private face of cancer is a person alone, too tired to get out of bed. She has mouth sores and hemorrhoids. Her bones hurt. He can’t be more than a few steps from a bathroom. He’s terrified, and he fears he’ll never be able to have sex again. She’s depressed and sometimes hopeless.

Cancer is an isolating disease for many of us. Some of us need and want to talk about worst case scenarios, or bad case scenarios. We want to ask about pain and mortality. We want to discuss the possibility of refusing treatment. We want to mourn our lost selves. A lot of people don’t want to listen to that.

When people with Stage 4 cancers such as breast or ovarian or bladder try to explain that they are terminal, people tell them to not give up hope. Just pray. Be strong. You can beat this. It’s the kind of support that feels more like a slap in the face. It says, “Don’t burden me with your reality.”

But it’s better than being abandoned by people close to you. It’s better than having family members stop calling and never asking about your health. It’s better than having friends turn their backs on you.

As I get to know more and more people in the cancer community, one of the most common stories I hear is about the experience of abandonment. It’s our dirty little secret, the one we keep from you.

Sometimes people abandon you forever. Sometimes they’re MIA for a few months or years and show back up as if all is well. But the phone almost always stops ringing.

I’ve thought a lot about the people in my life who’ve just not been there. Now that the sting of rejection has lessened, I’m becoming curious about what happened.

I believe that some people are afraid and can’t confront their fears. Some need you to be strong and simply can’t tolerate seeing you weak.

Some people are narcissists and can’t bear for your health to steal away their own importance. Others don’t know what to say and find it easier to say nothing at all.

Sadly, I believe some people simply don’t care as much about you as you thought they did.

I’m confident, however, that people turn their backs on us because of their own issues. As I’m learning over and over again, it isn’t personal.

I’m also discovering that it isn’t always fatal. It’s possible to accept that people have limitations, and that some are incapable of being there for you. When, or if, they come back, it’s possible to begin again.

Here’s the silver lining, though, if you’re lucky enough to find one. Cancer also helps us see who our real friends are. People you know and like become people you’ll love forever after.

For me, it was my friend Shawnalee. She organized a letter writing campaign on my behalf. For months, I received two or three letters each week from my friends back in Alaska. Those letters, and the love of a friend, helped me through.

And, my friend Robert really did organize a “Team Kerri” event on my behalf.

And, there was Lori who was always, every single day, available to hear me sob or complain.

Really, the list is very long. People have been good to me. It’s just that abandonment cuts so very deep. In the midst of our fear and suffering from cancer, rejection is devastating. Loss is a dominant theme for people with cancer. Losing friends and family is often part of the experience, and it’s our dirty little secret.

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