7 Types of Friends That Come With a Cancer Diagnosis
While we’d all like to believe each one of our friends would jump in with a helping hand and supportive words after learning about our cancer diagnosis, that doesn’t always happen. People don’t always react to cancer the way we think they will — some people pull away, some try to give you medical advice, and some go the extra mile with meal deliveries and handwritten cards. One thing people who have been through cancer often say is that cancer shows you who your true friends are, for better or worse. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you are probably learning right now which of your friends are truly there for you (hooray!) and which ones seem to have drifted away.
There are a few different ways people react to hearing that their friend has cancer, which means you might start to notice that your friends fall into a few different “types.” Some are helpful and supportive, while others may be less so. We asked our Mighty community to share their experience with friendships after a cancer diagnosis, and we came up with seven types of friends that people with cancer commonly have. We also talked with Lauren Selfridge, a licensed marriage and family therapist who supports people living with health challenges, about what to do if you have a friend who isn’t supporting you in the way you need.
Read on to see which friend types you might have, and to discover Selfridge’s advice.
1. The “Have You Tried…?” Friend
Whether you have cancer or another illness, you’ve probably realized you have some of these friends in your life. Perhaps they genuinely believe they have a cure or treatment that will help you that you haven’t heard about. Perhaps they don’t know what to say in response to your cancer diagnosis, and default to “giving advice” because it seems helpful. Perhaps they’re uneducated about your diagnosis and think maybe there’s something you should be doing to “save yourself.” Whatever the reason, this friend reacts to your cancer by giving you advice about supplements, food, medication, surgery, etc. without realizing that getting unsolicited medical advice can be extremely annoying, especially because you are already working with medical professionals who know much more about your health than your friend.
Mighty contributor Jordyn C. summed up what these advice-givers need to understand:
I understand that people give us this advice because they want to help. Chronic illness is the enigma that baffles us all. So of course, when seeing someone dealing with this, I get the feeling of wanting to help out in some way. I just want you to understand that we don’t want your advice. By all means, we have researched and asked questions. We are doing the best we can in our current situation. Maybe you can just tell us that you want to help, but don’t know how. Believe me, we will let you know how you can.
2. The Disappearing Friend
It hurts to learn this about a friend, but some people “freeze” in the face of a cancer diagnosis, and instead of reaching out, they pull away instead. There are many reasons a person might do this — they might be afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, they might think they’re doing you a favor by not “bothering” you, they might be dealing with their own life challenges and not have the emotional capacity to help you through yours, or they just might not realize that there are ways they could be supporting you. Seeing which of your friends disappear and which of them don’t can be eye-opening, because the ones who disappear are sometimes the ones you thought would be there.
“My friends didn’t know what to say so they said nothing and didn’t invite me to places/events as they didn’t want to ask in case I was ‘too ill,’” Gill Ainscough told The Mighty.
3. The Friend Who’s Also Fighting Cancer
If you join a support group (online or in person) or get to chatting with fellow patients at the doctor’s office or hospital, you might start to make friends with people who are also going through cancer. These friends can give you what few others in your social circle can: total understanding of what you’re experiencing. While your spouse or high school bestie may not be able to relate when you talk about chemo brain, your “cancer friend” knows exactly what it’s like, and that can be a comforting feeling. You can be totally real with someone else who also has cancer in a way you might not feel comfortable with other people.
“My thyroid cancer sisters are now new bonded friends and I will treasure them always,” Brandee Rockett told The Mighty.
4. The Friend Who Reaches Out When You Want to Pull Back
After your diagnosis, you might feel like you don’t really want to spend time with friends. For some people, social interactions are exhausting and drop lower on the priority list when something as stressful as cancer comes along. Or it could be more specific to a certain friend — perhaps they aren’t being supportive in the way you need, and it’s easier to just distance yourself for a while. It can also be difficult to spend time with healthy people, who can do things you can’t when you’re sick.
A recent letter to The Atlantic’s Dear Therapist column explored this phenomenon. The letter-writer shared how her friend had decided to disconnect from their friendship while she battles breast cancer, so therapist Lori Gottlieb recommended respecting her friend’s wishes and showing some loving concern from afar.
“Would you do it differently? Maybe. But you can’t know for sure unless you find yourself in the same situation. More important, the way you’d choose to spend your time doesn’t have to be the way she does,” Gottlieb wrote.
5. The “Distracting” Friend
This friend has an important power beyond organizing meal deliveries or sending supportive memes on Facebook: they can get you to forget, at least for a little while, about the weight of cancer on your shoulders. They are happy to regale you with tales of their office gossip, or argue about the latest episode of “Westworld,” or stop by for a cup of coffee without giving you a sad look and asking you to discuss your latest blood work. You may have cancer, but you’re still “you,” and you may feel relieved to not have to think about cancer the entire time you’re with them. They show their love by treating you like the person you were, and still are.
Mighty contributor Allison Lohrenz shared these words of thanks to the friend who sees past her illness and still treats her the same:
Thank you for treating me like a normal human being and not running away from me even when my condition had become quite scary. Thank you for sending me silly memes and corny jokes, because they can bring a smile to my face even when nothing else can.
6. The Surprise Friend
Sometimes, a friend or acquaintance you weren’t that close to and wouldn’t have expected to be there for you ends up being one of your biggest supporters. Cancer can show you which people in your life are natural helpers, and which ones value you more than you thought they did. This person might not even be a friend — your neighbor, hairstylist, children’s friend’s parents, even a stranger who learns about your story on social media might come through with a kind gesture that makes your life easier.
“I lost my best friend of over 10 years. It still hurts. But I had people reach out from everywhere including strangers. I really learned who cared,” Nicole Nika shared.
7. The Ride-Or-Die Friend
Finally, the type of friend everyone wants after they’ve been diagnosed with cancer: the ride-or-die, the friend who is always there for you with an encouraging word, funny joke, willingness to run an errand, and always makes you feel loved. For some people, this is a spouse, parent, or adult child; for others, it’s an old (or perhaps new) friend. If you have a ride-or-die friend, you likely feel cancer brought you even closer together, and grateful to know that you have a friend who’s truly in your corner.
“My close friends became closer, a lot of peripheral friends disappeared… but who’s to say that wouldn’t have happened in any event… Overall, I was really fortunate that my wee village tightened its hold on my family and me,” Nalini Meyer told The Mighty.
If you’re feeling a bit frustrated or let down by some of your friends, rest assured that what you’re going through is completely normal. Lauren Selfridge, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works with people who have chronic illnesses, brought up a great point in an interview with The Mighty: While this may be your first time living with cancer, it may also be their first time having a friend with cancer. You both might find it helpful if you are specific about what you need from them. That way, it’s easier for them to help you meet your needs in the way you want.
“Even if your desires don’t feel particularly profound, they are yours, and you get to ask for them!” Selfridge said. “For example, it’s perfectly acceptable to say to a friend: ‘Right now, I only really have the energy for chatting about non-cancer stuff. People have been asking me so many treatment questions when really I’d love to just connect the way we always have without focusing on my health this week.’”
Selfridge also reminded that different friends can meet different needs — for example, some friends might be great at giving rides while other friends are great to call if you just need a laugh.
“Allowing friends to shine in their own individual ways can take the pressure off of each person to be the ‘everything’ friend,” Selfridge said.
For more insight into how friendships can change in the face of cancer, check out these stories from our Mighty community:
Getty photo by Softulka