Cancer's Effect on Relationships
Last updated: June 2020
I was asked recently about how my cancer diagnosis affected my relationships, from my immediate family to my friends to my work associates. It was an interesting question to ponder, partly because of the uniquely individual nature of most responses. I've written about how many people pull back, especially when they initially hear the news; fortunately, some of those eventually come to terms with their own reasons for this and return to the fold, while others are just gone. Immediate family does not often have the opportunity to easily disappear, and so there may be some struggles with the new roles we play, but these things have to get worked out.
Cancer's new role in our lives
In the home, especially considering that I have a stage IV diagnosis, it is impossible to avoid the obvious. Cancer is a defining aspect of our lives whether or not we want it that way. Our focus is on living as "normal" a life as possible, and that includes having arguments over stupid things and trying to fit in a day for the zoo. It means cleaning the house and being responsible for the bills. But it can also mean having to parse resentment, balancing the loss of something old with the hope of something new, and allowing space for anger at the roles we are forced to play. I would say that this diagnosis has the power to destroy foundations just as much as strengthen them, and that has everything to do with how we choose to approach it day to day. We have been fortunate in so many ways, and yet there is inevitable tension in the air as the next scan approaches.
Finding a new balance at work
It was impossible not to bring my cancer up in the workplace, though I had initially hoped to avoid it. The requisite time off, especially in the early months, meant I needed to make arrangements to cover my time. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly people rallied around me then (and continue to, years later) when I needed it. Of course, there are weird issues sometimes because I look fine on the outside and after a while people who don't know me that well tend to just think I have been cured. To counter that, I have taken to talking openly about my treatment. The interesting thing here has been the number of people who took an active interest, often bringing me news articles or sharing stories that touch on common issues. More interesting still is that most of the news or stories are relevant or helpful -- a big shift from how I was inundated at the beginning. I think that, over time, people figure out how to relate to one another, and in these cases, I saw work associates turn into actual friends.
Some friendships remain close, others do not
My circle of friends from outside the home or workplace had the widest range of responses. I am happy to say that only a couple of my close friends completely disappeared, and I cannot be sure that my cancer was even the driving factor as to why. Sometimes friendships just end for no apparent reason, and I'm okay if that was the case. But during those first few months of treatment, the hardest ones, I realized that I had a need to reconnect with my friends. And it was a great impetus to make it happen, this cancer thing. "Hey, I've got Stage IV lung cancer! We should get together. Soon."
Three of my college roommates still live reasonably close -- one is less than 10 minutes from me -- and yet we had barely seen one another in years. Now we break bread about twice a year, a great meal filled with laughter and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Many friends have made the effort to come out to me when I could not go to them. And I love it when old friends, especially those from childhood, connect in person. There is nothing like being seen as who I was before cancer came to define me in the eyes of others.
Cherishing the relationships that matter
My cancer diagnosis facilitated the strengthening of some relationships, brought more than a few back from the brink of oblivion, and maybe made a few vanish. Of course, there are some folks who are simply too uncomfortable spending much time around me, especially if the conversation veers into medical territory. But that is okay. I've been fortunate with the people who have stayed close, and those are the relationships that matter.
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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