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A Testicular Cancer Diagnosis Showed Me Who My Real Friends Were

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“I thought our friendship was stronger than you getting cancer.”

Of all the things you could say to a cancer patient, this probably makes the list of the top five things not to say.

Prior to my testicular cancer diagnosis, “Elle” (name changed to protect her identity) and I were very close friends. We met through some mutual friends a few years earlier and found we had a lot in common — both on the newer side of our careers, in our mid-twenties, in long term relationships and grew up with the “Harry Potter” series and other YA fiction novels.

Beyond our personal connection, we also worked together on numerous projects related to our mutual careers in education. Some of these projects were quick one-offs that never fully got off the ground, while others aimed to change education.

Initially, I enjoyed working with her. I always appreciated her eagerness to try something new, as well  the energy she brought to the team. Education can be a taxing profession, so we leaned on each other for support and encouragement. On the worst of days, I felt I could turn to her to help get through trying times in my classroom.

Once I was diagnosed, however, I had to let go of these projects. At first, it was so I could focus on my health, but then I realized the projects weren’t really my calling and decided to abandon my stake in them entirely. Admittedly, it was a big change to go from so many side endeavors to nothing at all, but I figured Elle would understand. After all, it was an easy choice for me.

However, try explaining this decision to someone who is still very much invested in the very projects you are trying to leave behind. If the person isn’t undergoing a cancer fight, it’s hard to understand how a diagnosis really shifts your perspective on life and what’s important. It’s even more complex do what I did, which was to follow the, “I’ve enjoyed working with you, but I’m going to stop doing that,” talk with, “ By the way, I’m starting a new project.”

My new project was (and continues to be) a testicular cancer awareness blog entitled “A Ballsy Sense of Tumor.” Since testicular cancer is so underrepresented and rarely discussed in society, I realized this project had a true purpose and was necessary, both for myself and for others who might read the blog. While the other projects were fun, they had no lasting impression upon me as a person.

ABSOT could be my life’s work.

Though we had worked together on virtually every project I had undertaken in the past few years, I didn’t ask Elle to be part of ABSOT. While she brought a degree of energy to our previous projects, there was always an issue of her completing tasks in a timely manner, and to the degree of quality I expected from projects with my name attached to it. Sometimes, “work sessions” turned into stroking her ego instead of getting things accomplished.

I knew running a blog during chemo by myself would be difficult so instead of asking Elle, I requested the help of another dependable friend to help with editing and publishing. Though I didn’t ask her to be my second in command, I did ask Elle to contribute a piece in my “Healthy, But Affected” features — a series where my close friends and loved ones shared their reactions to my diagnosis. I thought she would support me in my new endeavor, even if she wasn’t a focal part of it.

While she initially agreed to write a post, it never came, even after asking her for it for weeks on end. What did arrive was a series of thinly-veiled, passive-aggressive jibes at the importance of ABSOT.

“While you’re on this cancer awareness spree, you should plug [other, unrelated cancer site],” read one text to me, which showed she was viewing ABSOT as a self-promotion platform instead of the helpful and selfless resource I was trying to develop. “This shiny new project of yours is taking up a lot of time,” was another.

While these messages showed I made the right choice in not including her in this project, I brushed them off. I still appreciated our friendship outside of our working relationship. However, she couldn’t see the two as separate. When I went public with ABSOT I knew she would not take it well, but I wasn’t prepared for the harshness of her reaction.

I received this text exchange from her about ABSOT late that night:

“I’m not sure how this is immediately essential.” (Her)

“It’s immediate to me.” (Me)

“I’m just looking out for you.”

“It’s what I want to do with my time.”

“I’ll stop bugging you then.”

“I never said you’re bugging me. I’m just saying this is my focal point.”

“I feel like you’re pushing me away.”

“How so?”

“I guess I’m used to hearing all the things from you.”

“I have a lot going on.”

“In all honesty, I’m hurting really bad right now. I guess I thought our friendship was stronger than you getting cancer.”

She could not see past herself to be happy for me, and blaming my diagnosis for her attitude sealed the fate of our friendship.

Immediately, I stopped responding to her messages. It was in that moment I realized I needed to be intentional with who I was spending my time with. I had no room in my life for selfish people, especially when I was about to begin the hardest trial of my life in less than a week.

Though I was leery of staying in contact with Elle, my diagnosis also taught me life is too short to hold grudges, so I sent her an email a few weeks later explaining why I had been avoiding contacting her. I spilled my feeling out into Gmail and pressed send.

Three days later, an email arrived. The “apology” was one in name only. Among the quotes:

“I was pretty upset when you didn’t tell me about your new project.”

(Even though I did tell her about it, and even tried to include her in a part of it.)

If you’re feeling the same type of thing with a loved one experiencing cancer, understand that cancer patients will do their best to keep everyone in the loop with what’s going on with them, but it’s hard to be present to the same degree as before the diagnosis.

“You told me repeatedly you were available to talk anytime I needed it. But, I should have realized this wasn’t a conversation I should have had with you.”

Making it about your feelings and adding guilt to the patient doesn’t help. I understand a cancer diagnosis is hard on everyone, but during treatment, the focus needs to be on the patient.

The email showed me that, ultimately, I made the right choice in cutting her out of my life. I never looked back after those emails.

I learned a lot from this exchange. You choose who you give your time and energy to, and those who don’t support you when you are down, do not deserve it. Is this a harsh way to put it? Possibly, but sometimes, the truth is ugly.

Luckily, this was a rare and isolated incident. While I lost a close friend, new friendships blossomed. By sharing my story openly on social media, I received an outpouring of support from people who I would have considered acquaintances and complete strangers.

One co-worker who I hadn’t been too close with prior to this checked on me via text numerous times a week.

A new Twitter follower sent me a Beaker hat, based on a brief conversation we had about the “Muppets Christmas Carol” being the greatest Christmas movie of all time.

Another casual Twitter friend organized a “Christmas movie drive” to help me complete my annual Christmas movie list.

Instagram followers reached out with offers to help me during and after chemo.

Cancer is awful, but if there’s one thing it is good for, it’s teaching you some pretty important lessons. When the chips are down and your world seems to be crumbling before your eyes, you’ll find your people who have your back… and find the courage to leave the ones who don’t.

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Thinkstock photo by David De Lossy

Originally published: September 9, 2017
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