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What I've Learned About Some Friends Who Vanish While We Face Cancer

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When you learn that you are sick, or even dying, sometimes “friends” vanish, never to be heard from again. It’s a lonely time in so many ways, and then the sudden evaporation of friends can add to the devastation.

In case you don’t read this whole story, I want to cut to my point as I hope it can provide some comfort. I’ve been on both sides and speak from experience. Sometimes when our friends vanish, it’s because they actually do care.

Ten years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, the first time, at 31. I was stunned by the friends who did not call me back. If and when I did see them again it was in passing at some social occasion, and they would distance themselves as if I was contagious. I was equally surprised by acquaintances who I didn’t even think knew my name, yet suddenly they were willing to go above and beyond for me… like Joy. She was the popular girl at work and I tried to be near her when we were at the same work location, if only because she was the life of the party. I honestly did not think she knew my name, but she was one of my big supporters. She started driving 100 miles to see me on a regular basis, just to cheer me up and take me out for a bite to eat.

Then there was Mananya, my cancer buddy. She was a few years younger than me but had the misfortune of being diagnosed with breast cancer too, a year before I was. We met at a support group and she guided me through, literally held my hand for cancer treatment. She was also an unexpected and truly supportive friend.

The friends I lost in my first bout of cancer, I honestly don’t even remember now. Joy is still one of my dearest friends 10 years later, but Mananya is not. I went into remission and thought I was going to be a success story when Mananya, who we also thought was going to be a success story, took a turn that was ultimately terminal. To my surprise, and utter shame, I found myself being the one to vanish. I went to see Mananya once before she died. We went for ice cream. I cried and I cried. She ended up consoling me. I never saw her again. I couldn’t handle the fact that she was dying. I cried at the thought. I still do today, seven years later. I still feel utterly ashamed I could not be a better friend. I wanted to see her. But I also knew I did not have the strength to be supportive. I knew I would cry again, and she certainly did not have the strength and would have not gained anything from consoling me.

For Mananya, I vanished… and then I understood. Sometimes people vanish not because they don’t care, but because they do. Since then I have continued to put up the good fight. I have had a recurrence, success and a recurrence again. Each time I lost more friends and gained ones I did not expect. I lost friends for different reasons. Some just couldn’t face mortality. Some were too empathetic and would be too sad. Some I discarded as too self-involved and not seemingly aware of my struggles, even as I sat in front of a plate of barely touched food, not a hair on my body.

Overall, I lost more far more friends than I gained. But the ones I gained were so much more valuable than the sum total of those I lost. I still do feel a little betrayed by those I lost and struggle with why they could not be better friends or have been more supportive. But I also deeply understand, because I too have vanished from dying friends and loved ones. I can’t handle their mortality or my own. I certainly can’t handle witnessing their suffering. I don’t have the emotional reservoir to be strong or supportive. I wish I did, but I don’t.

As someone who has been on both sides, I want you to know some of those missing friends simply care so much that they know it is better to vanish than be a drain on what little strength you have left. They know it would be too much for them to be supportive through your suffering.

Rest in peace, and with love, my dear friend Mananya Tantiwiwat. (1982-2011).

Photo credit: AntonioGuillem/Getty Images

Originally published: September 19, 2018
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