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Thursday 13 June, 7:52am
My name is Debi and I manage the Cancer Support Centre in Skipton, North Yorkshire. I know! It sounds like a confession rather than my name and job role. However, I wanted to set the scene as to why I was writing this piece and from what position.
When I was invited by Helen to put something together for this blog, I realised that I can see this from two sides:
Often when a client comes to see me having received their diagnosis, they will tell me that the people they had thought would step up to the plate are nowhere to be seen, and how surprised they are to have help offered from unexpected sources, some even making new friends along the way.
We say that it is in times of trouble or stress that you find out who your true friends are, and for sure, there can be few more stressful events in a person’s life than being given a cancer diagnosis.
Working here at Cancer Support Yorkshire, I have discovered that there is no hard and fast one-size-fits-all way of handling a diagnosis – whether that’s your diagnosis, or that of a family member or friend.
Supporters will often say how “useless” they feel, and that they don’t know how to help, which can mean that they withdraw and become unable to reach out to offer any kind of support at all.
Similarly, patients may also withdraw; sometimes needing to process the event in their own minds, before having to deal with the reactions of others; or feeling like they need to protect their nearest and dearest from not only what can be a shocking diagnosis, but also the day to day realities of living with cancer.
There are numerous definitions of friendship, and in these days where people live both a “real” and a “virtual” life we can often have a number of both “real” friends and “Facebook” friends. There are friends we see every day, who know all about what’s going on in our lives and friends we rarely see or speak to but when we do see them it’s just like we saw them yesterday. Those Facebook friends often become very important to us even if we have never physically met. There are many very close virtual friendships formed on the various cancer support forums which can provide that support from under a cloak of anonymity – but no matter what time of day or night the ability to talk to someone during the times of worry (which can often be in the middle of the night when minds are whirring and won’t turn off) is invaluable.
I know myself how much I value being able to share good news with friends, as well as the not so good news, and I’d like to think I know who would be there for me in times of trouble. Indeed, I have had times where I’ve turned to friends with worries or problems, or to help me through major life events.
When talking to me in my role at Cancer Support, some say how much easier it was to build friendships with people who were going through the same thing, who understood and could empathise with what they were going through.
I regularly hear myself saying “Let people help, they want to and it makes them feel better” which sounds very glib, but people need to feel as though they are doing something so, whether it’s making a meal or giving someone a lift, or just sitting with someone at an appointment. Good friends, whether they are old or new, are there for the good and the bad.
One of the many definitions of friendship talks about “trust between two people”, and we all know how we feel when trust is compromised in any relationship. When your friend is faced with a diagnosis of cancer, it is so often the fear of the unknown that is the worry, and if you can’t trust your friends to be there to face it with you, you may feel let down if they don’t respond the way you expect or hope they would.
In my job, I see every day how vital friendships are to a person’s well-being – from attending appointments with their friend who is newly diagnosed, to the laughter that rings out when trying on the various wigs and head scarves, or the tears on those tough days. Friendship is a crutch, something you hold on to. Cancer shouldn’t be a “test” of a friendship and we would all hope, I’m sure, that we could lean on our friends at such a time, but when we expect something from someone and they can’t/don’t/won’t deliver we set ourselves up for disappointment.
It’s also very difficult to speak to someone going through such a difficult time if they are on their own. At Cancer Support we always ask “what support do you have? Family? Friends?”, and it’s more common than you would imagine for people to say they’ve no one they feel they can turn to.
I have seen people discard really good friends because they feel as though they have been let down by the way the friends have handled their diagnosis. It is important to remember that everyone is different and to accept that people can be scared and feel ill equipped to cope with what may be to come.
Friendships are crucial to anyone going through cancer and it’s very common for friends to be the ones to whom patients will turn as opposed to family who can often feel too close.
I’ve also heard people say they feel smothered by their friends who are trying to help but unwittingly are being a menace!
Some would say friends can’t win! I would say, take the lead from your friend and work through it together. Even the best of friends sometimes can’t find the words to say “I need help” or “I’m ok thanks I’ll let you know when I need anything” or “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say or do to help”.
A big eye opener for me has been the men’s support group at the Centre. Men are notorious for not talking, sharing or communicating, but this regular group meets twice a month at the centre and the only thing that any of them have in common is that they either have or have had cancer. The friendships that have formed are deep and heart-warming, with members meeting up outside of the group setting for lunch or a brew – these men have come from all backgrounds but all have one thing in common – their diagnosis and treatments. They really value taking time out to talk to each other and it’s so lovely to hear the laughter from the lounge on the days they have their meetings.
In addition to my own reflections on friendship, I thought it was important to find out from people who had experienced cancer and I asked some of our clients to explain to me what friendships have meant to them during their diagnosis. There was a consensus that everyone needed someone to share the experience with but that sometimes, they didn’t want to burden family, or stress friends out. Two clients sent in their thoughts, for me to share in this piece and I think that between them, they each confirm some of the points in my piece.
“Many of my old friends have drifted & I don’t hear from them anymore. I am no longer active, can’t drive so they obviously feel I am now a burden & don’t fit in with their lifestyle activities. People who have stuck by me & that’s really not many are still my true friends.
My main friends are “new” people who I have met at our support group. Not necessarily with the same Cancer as mine but with a shared understanding of how Cancer affects you physically as well as mentally. It’s wonderful to meet up & come away feeling understood & definitely uplifted. To come home feeling so much better than you went out is wonderful. Someone to share the ups & downs with & discuss with them things you may not wish to share with loved ones”.
“It was interesting when I was diagnosed as the result of a routine mammogram that I was calm and accepting. However, close friends and some of the family were in total shock. From the start I was anxious that we spoke of it openly and didn’t use euphemisms.
For me this was the right way to behave and I think that my assurance gave those around me the confidence to behave naturally.
I was fortunate enough to have some people around me who were able to use black humour some of the time and this certainly helped me to get through the waiting for scans, results, and surgery.
There is no doubt that meeting those with a similar diagnosis can produce a special bond. In particular I became very close friends with a lady in the next 'bed' and who went for surgery before me. We describe ourselves as Breast Friends. Before discharge we had exchanged addresses, phone numbers and the promise to keep in touch. This was interesting in that we had both approached our cancer diagnosis in different ways. I was truly pragmatic about what might happen whereas she could not even bear to say the word cancer. We have kept in close contact for the 2.5 years since we met. She understands the anxiety that comes with the annual mammogram and subsequent visit to the Breast Care Nurse. I find that this is something family and friends don’t quite understand. For them the surgery is done, the radiotherapy did its work, and the medication will do its magic - nothing to worry about.
I met a number of people with a cancer diagnosis when I attended a relaxation session at CSY Skipton. Everyone's story was the same but different. Everyone’s prognosis was different. Everyone’s attitude was different. But the positivity, the camaraderie and the friendliness was the same. A fantastic support away from those with you every day."
From Vicky (taken with permission from her Facebook post)
“The best and worst thing about having had cancer is the friendships you make with people you would never have met otherwise. You forge an unbreakable bond with some and they make a huge difference to your life, so much you wonder how you would have got through the tough times without them. Yesterday I lost one of those special friends. Taken so cruelly by this horrible disease we both had and fought at the same time.. for her though it wasn’t a fair fight. I miss you and will never forget you.”
And, this is a post that her friend Charlotte had written to her at Christmas
“Vic, thank-you for coming into my world, and thank you for being you. My cancer would have been so much worse without you. I hope you know how much you impacted my life. You look beautiful and so twinkly. Your eyes are just lit up and it makes me so happy. 2019 I am coming for you. Have a lovely Christmas!”
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My top tips for patients: