‘Many of my relationships crumbled following my cancer diagnosis’

Tell Me About It: ‘Accepting your friends’ faults means you may be able to talk to them without bitterness’


I was diagnosed with cancer recently. Luckily, I have a supportive partner, a close-knit family and a wonderful medical team which allowed me to live a relatively normal life despite chemo. The issue I have is the majority of my other relationships crumbled following my diagnosis.

Some people initially reached out and then there was silence. It felt like it was easier for people to avoid me than offer a small bit of support during one of the most isolating and anxiety-inducing periods of my life. I’ve become involved in advocacy which has helped my emotional wellbeing tremendously, but I wonder should I just let those relationships that became strained following my diagnosis (there’s a lot) fizzle out? My partner points out that those that really mattered were there and that is true, but a part of me feels like it is important to express my disappointment as otherwise we will continue to isolate cancer patients and I find that morally wrong.

I don’t think most people intentionally set out to hurt me and I’m obviously angry at my situation (but moving forward) so I don’t want that to cloud my judgment.


You come across as strong and brave and this will stand to you in dealing with this issue. Friendship is important to you and this is demonstrated in how much it hurts to have people you previously counted in your social circle withdraw and disappear. There may not just be one explanation for this, as it is unlikely that all of your previous friends just backed off due to fear of not knowing how to be or what to say.

However, it is true that fear of not getting things right can lead friends to pushing people towards professionals for the support that would have previously been provided by communities. Your friends may comfort themselves by thinking that you will reach out when you are ready and that in the meantime, they will leave you to the care of close family and medical team.

That you are angry shows how unjust and wrong this feels and if anyone were to think about it at all, they too would know that the gathering of community around us in times of need is exactly what provides comfort and safety. Your friends may not recognise that they have been hurtful without you engaging with them, but the danger is that if you engage with a sense of disappointment and criticism they might struggle to listen and learn from what you are saying.

If you want your message of support for cancer patients to land, then it will make demands on you that will be challenging. If you want people to listen and really connect with the hurt you feel at the abandonment, then you will need to engage with these old friends in a genuine and hopeful way. We can listen to criticism if the other person believes we are worth the effort of spending time and energy on. However, we cannot fake this if we want an authentic response. Can you dig up a shred of optimism that your previous friends are worth the effort of pursuing and explaining your sense of disappointment to them?

If you do not think they are worth this, it is likely that they will again disappear, and you might even be more hurt than previously. In the bigger scheme of things you are an advocate and there is an opportunity here to change how people support cancer patients. There is a high likelihood that your friends will encounter cancer in their circles (or indeed may experience it directly themselves) this effort will travel far in its effectiveness, if it is delivered with care.

Can you accept your friends’ inability to stay the pace with you? If you can accept their faults, you may be able to engage with them without a wave of bitterness hitting them before you even get to say your piece. What you want is for them to take responsibility for their responses, to see the unfairness in it and to be open to change and learning.

This requires great magnanimity from you, as you guide them back to a supportive understanding and a physical presence for those in need. You need to be well-supported yourself to take this on. Perhaps your advocacy group could act as a sounding board for you. Your family may well be against your engagement with these ex-friends as they will have witnessed your pain and hurt and know the cost to you of risking further rejection.

You will need them fully behind you so perhaps the first step is to explain to your family what you intend to do and listen to their concerns and objections if they have any. There may be tough times ahead and if you are to thrive you need to know that the way forward often comes in the form of two steps forward, one step backward.

Your goal of challenging society’s hands-off approach to cancer support is admirable, but make sure you are in a robust place before you begin.