By Marley Cameron
When I was diagnosed with cancer at 20-years-old, my doctors were excellent at laying out the physical side effects and symptoms I could face throughout treatment, but what they didn’t prepare me for was just how great of an effect my illness would have on my social life and my relationships with the people around me. Most relationships have a beginning and an end. but when those relationships end before we are ready or for reasons we don’t understand, it can be devastating in so many ways. Over the last six years, as I have continued to learn and grow despite my illness, I have found the truth about relationships and cancer can be pretty darn ugly yet inspiringly beautiful at the same time.
I am going to come right out and say it since you might not hear it otherwise: Some of your friends will leave you when you are diagnosed with cancer and it is not your fault. Not all of them, not forever, but at some point, you will lose friends along the way.
Before I was diagnosed, I felt as if I had a never ending support system of family and friends. I was just starting college, solidifying a great group of like-minded people, and for the first time in my life, I had felt as if I had finally found my “tribe.” My idea of a social life during that time had shifted greatly, and along with it, my friendships and relationships did, too. Sure, they stuck around for the first few days, weeks, even months, but they soon lost interest in the sick girl when I could no longer keep up.
“Cocktails were no longer just a fruity drink, but a plethora of prescription drugs meant to keep my body functioning.”
Instead of coffee shops, my afternoons were spent in waiting rooms. Instead of shopping for the latest trends, I was shopping for items I would need after surgeries and treatment. Cocktails were no longer just a fruity drink, but a plethora of prescription drugs meant to keep my body functioning. Not the idea of a good time for the vast majority of 20-somethings, and certainly not how I wanted to be spending the beginning of my adult life.
If you had asked me how I felt about all of the relationships I lost six years ago, I would have told you I was hurt. I was stunned that a so-called friend could turn their back on someone who clearly needed their support.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow young adult affected by cancer about the relationships we lost through our respective illnesses, and he expressed something I related to on a heartbreaking level. He told me that when he was diagnosed, he expected to have endless visitors and friends while in the hospital, but was shocked to see that no one showed up. My journey was similar. Friends disappeared, other people came out of the woodwork with their opinions, but it was those amazing family and friends who stuck by me in my darkest days that truly outweighed the ones I lost through my cancer experience.
I have also wondered — and still do — whether or not those people were truly my friends to begin with. I still struggle with this idea and I don’t know if there is really one concrete answer to this question. If the roles had been reversed, would I have been mature enough to provide them with the support they needed? I would like to think so, but wasn’t it cancer that taught me traits like empathy and compassion? After a while, I may have begun to embrace how my life was moving on and enjoyed it to its fullest. Perhaps the friends we lose through cancer aren’t actually the terrible people we seem to paint them as. Perhaps they simply don’t know how to support us as we fight to live.
“For as many relationships and friendships as I have lost throughout my battle with cancer, I have strengthened and gained so many more.”
For as many relationships and friendships as I have lost throughout my battle with cancer, I have strengthened and gained so many more. The people who stepped up to the plate truly surprised me, and I will forever be grateful for their love and support from coming to sit with me in the hospital to bringing meals for my family. These are the people we need to hold close. Some of these people may have been there the whole time and some may come to you along the journey.
After cancer, the way I approached my existing friendships and the relationships I have come to find along the way has changed drastically. I learned life is too short for toxic people. I made a conscious decision to become more intentional in who I chose to surround myself with.
About a year after my original diagnosis, and dozens of lost friends later, I found Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC). YACC introduced me to literally hundreds of other young adults with a huge variety of cancer diagnoses across the country. It felt really good to finally have peers who understood what I was going through.
When I entered the YACC community, I had a preconceived notion that I would only be able to emotionally connect to others with the same diagnosis as mine. As I began to navigate the online community, I found our relationships and friendships transcended our diagnoses. The shared trauma created a bond like no other.
We were able to find other similarities — like our priorities, hobbies, interests — that became more important to our relationship than our cancers. I found myself with the most supportive friends who were ready to throw themselves into living fully alongside me and who understood the mental aspect of a cancer journey.
In particular, I connected with a beautiful young woman from across the country. She lives in Alberta; I live in Ontario. She was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer while I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. If you looked at us as two individual cancer patients, we had nothing in common, but we soon found ourselves chatting online every day. We shared funny pictures, supported each other through health crises and simply grew an amazing, strong friendship.
YACC became my family in every sense of the word. This is where I turned when I had news worth celebrating. and the first place I looked to for support when in 2015 — and then again in 2018 — I learned my cancer had returned. They have supported me through living with metastatic cancer, and I know no matter what is thrown my way, I can continue to look to my peers at YACC for a world of encouragement or a shoulder to lean on.
“I can continue to look to my peers at YACC for a world of encouragement or a shoulder to lean on.”
Focusing on the ugly truth about relationships and cancer has been easier than I would like it to be. I have tried for many years to forgive those who walked away and I hope that someday I can get to that point. What is most important to me, here and now, is that I continue to show gratitude and love for everyone who has held my hand through the most challenging part of my life and treat them with the same level of loyalty, support, and kindness that they give me.
To my family members who stepped up and surrounded me with love each and every day since, thank you. To my friends who continue to show up day in and day out, thank you. And to my amazing YACC family who continues to be the brightest light in the darkness that is cancer, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
All photos submitted by the author