The Patient Lived, but the Friendship Bit the Dust

Cancer can test and break bonds even among survivors.

by Melinda Henneberger
Photograph: Photo: Elinor Carucci

The best thing about my cancer is that my 14-year-old twins don’t even remember it—they were six then, and I disregarded the prevailing wisdom that I should share every one of my anxieties with them. They do have a slightly different mom as a result of the Big C, though, and what’s changed the most is my relationships. Before cancer, I spent more time mulling what I should do or, even less productively, should have done. These days I only go to parties I want to attend.

I’ve also become less tolerant of ties that aren’t exactly boosting my immunity; in psych-speak, I think you would say I have gotten better at drawing boundaries. Despite what you may have heard about the pink-ribbon sisterhood, cancer can test and break bonds even among survivors—and sometimes, that’s a good thing.

One friendship that did not survive my illness was with the perfectly lovely woman who was with me when I was first diagnosed, who kindly drove me back from the hospital because my family was still in Italy, where we lived at the time. She set me up in her extra bedroom and took five-star care of me after my lumpectomy, until my husband and kids arrived.

Not long afterward, my friend learned she had early-stage cancer and needed a mastectomy. You’d think that would have brought us closer, because I’d want to be there for her just as she had been for me, right? At first, yes.

Actually, I’ve heard other women talk about tensions between friends with breast cancer whose prognoses are dramatically different, which shouldn’t be that surprising. (If we can envy one another’s salaries or shoes, what do you think it’s like when one woman is pretty sure she’ll make it and the other knows there’s a high risk that she won’t?) That wasn’t what went wrong with my pal, though her prognosis was significantly better than mine. Instead, there was just too much difference in how we handled the whole experience. I am no slouch when it comes to processing feelings, but the day came when I couldn’t spend one more ounce of energy on this lousy disease; I needed to move on. She, on the other hand, needed to keep talking about it, calling nearly every day to rage at the unfairness of having lost a breast. And what kind of bad friend wouldn’t let her vent these very legitimate feelings? After a certain point, that would be me.

A year after my lumpectomy, I learned I had a new cancer, thankfully still contained in the milk ducts, and because I had already had radiation now needed a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction involving a complicated 12½-hour surgery. I was in intensive care for five days and attached to disgusting tubes for weeks. When I was finally able to drive again (though still feeling I’d been flattened by a cement truck), my friend reached me on my cell in the car to tell me again how mad it made her every time she opened a jar and felt the muscle pull in her fake boob, and I went into a full-blown panic attack. I could hardly breathe or see, and had to pull over to the curb.

We didn’t fight, exactly, but something changed between us. We tried to focus on other topics, but the bottom line is that she needed to talk to me about her feelings (about me refusing to help her process her feelings) and I needed her not to. Finally, on a day when I got some wonderful work-related news, she skipped over that and went back to sharing her very real, understandable anxiety—and that was the last time we talked. Since then, she’s called, written and demanded answers from my husband. But every­one has limits, and both she and cancer helped me find mine. You lose a piece of yourself any time you give up a friend. But I had to reclaim some territory I’d given away. This is not the part where I say cancer made me a better person; on the contrary, I’ve become much quicker with the trapdoor. And that, to my mind, is better than falling through it.

Melinda Henneberger is the editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

Originally published in the November 2010 issue of More.

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