Bringing Friends Together Through Terminal Cancer

Trigger alert: cancer is a sensitive issue, but sometimes patients need to find humor in even the direst prognosis.

I did not expect the reveal of my metastatic disease to frighten people away, but I understood why it did. The subject of stage IV cancer -- any variety -- is loaded. By the time any of us have reached middle-age, it is all but impossible to have avoided knowing several people who have already died or are clearly on their way out because of one cancer or another. New and novel treatments are continuing to show promise, offering effective cures to more and more patients, but there is no way yet to completely keep up with the constant flow of new patients diagnosed every year, often too late to fend off cancer's forward march. Lung cancer is particularly nefarious with an estimated 433 deaths per day -- per day. With a killer like that hovering over your shoulder, it is no wonder that people want to back away, an eye clearly on the escape hatch.

Some relationships get better, others don't

But just as a cancer diagnosis may alienate some friends, it opens the door to new or strengthened friendships with others.

While I am not sure that an online dating profile would be effective leading with "Inoperable Stage IV Lung Cancer Patient Seeks Companion for Potentially Painful Final Months," there are ways in which talking about a diagnosis can bring people closer. Being open and frank about the trials in life might be difficult for some people to deal with, but it offers a path to deeper connection with those who are open to it. And in relationships, deeper connections often matter. Not everybody wants them, and that is okay; those of us who do enjoy a deeper connection, however, get a strong sense of fulfillment from them.

It's hard to know how people will react

And you find out pretty quickly which friends are prepared to get down in the trenches with you. Some might hesitate, which is normal and probably healthy, but eventually will join you in your foxhole. Some might be full of bravado at the outset, leaping without looking only to suffer a little shell-shock. This is not about making value judgements regarding friendships, because we all need different things from people at different times and, honestly, sometimes the friend you need the most might be the one who lets everything simply slide off her shoulders and is ready with a quip and a smile.

But every now and again you find that new person, a stranger you've just met, and you open the conversation somehow with "you know, as someone with advanced lung cancer, I can relate to that..." or "after three years of chemotherapy, I think I know a thing or two about..." And remarkably, that fresh acquaintance does not run for the hills. Instead, he or she leans in, intrigued. And then the conversation deepens, because you opened yourself up, revealed that vulnerable spot but without the bomb exploding.

Sharing our experiences & stories

The next thing you know, you are at a dinner party and half the people there have been through their own cancer journey, swapping stories and comparing experiences. It does not quite turn into its own version of Pictionary, but the terrible weight has been removed from the balloon and it is allowed to fly away. Maybe the stigma that lingers around the word "cancer" is not going to disappear entirely, but there is no denying that it is a part of everyone's vocabulary at some point. We need to learn how to talk about it, with ease, in order to progress the way patients and research are treated by society.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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