Friendships Through Cancer: It’s Complicated

by Rachel MihalkoSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaJuly 13, 2020View more posts from Rachel Mihalko

When I was in treatment, I had a friend come over and watch a movie with me. I felt like crap and barely had it in me to sit there and pay attention to the plot unfolding before me. Looking back now, I have no clue what we watched, but what I do know is how much that small gesture meant. She took time out of her day to sit there with me when I was at my worst. I was nauseous and fatigued and didn’t have much energy to even talk that much.

Despite that, she still showed up. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. 

Holding onto friendships through and after treatment is hard. I had some people who were there for me before and during, and then fell off the radar after. Others were there for me before, not there for me during, then tried again after. And some might have just been in over their heads with no clue how to show up for a friend who just received a cancer diagnosis. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, because I don’t know what it’s like to be on the other side of things. However, that doesn’t erase the frustration. 

To me, checking in on someone and showing up every once in a while doesn’t sound so hard. It doesn’t take much to pick up the phone and give someone a call. But it’s taken me going through cancer at 19 to realize how important and impactful something like that can be. And having struggled with my mental health since then, I’m starting to understand how difficult it can be to pick up the phone or not have the right words to say.

Since treatment, I’ve done my best to try to show up for people and be there for them, because when people did that for me, it meant so much. On the other side of this experience, I can see those who showed up for me and those that didn’t, and that vastly impacted our friendships going forward.

I don’t say this to upset any of those people from friendships that dissolved after cancer. I say this to be open to the AYA cancer community about my own experience. And I want to acknowledge that friendship is a two way street, and I’m not placing any blame on anyone for how some of our friendships ended.

The fact is, some people just grow apart naturally, and this likely would have happened with several of them whether cancer was ever in the picture or not. I want to stress that, while there still may be some bruised feelings, I still wish the best for the people I am no longer in touch with. They deserve to be happy and healthy, and just because our friendships didn’t work out, doesn’t mean that I wish anything different for them. 

Although I do wish many of those friendships didn’t end the way they did, I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty for not knowing the “right” thing to do. It’s hard for anyone to figure out how to react in a situation like this, and if I’m being honest, I could come up with a huge list of what not to do and a very limited list of what to do. Because if I were in those people’s shoes, I wouldn’t know how to react or be supportive. And I definitely wouldn’t know what to say.

I’ve been through this, and I still am not sure what to say to the newly diagnosed. More than once, I’ve surely said something unhelpful or insensitive to another patient/survivor. Everyone’s cancer experience is so different, and we cannot all possibly understand every single aspect of survivorship for every single survivor. So I can’t imagine what it’s like coming from the perspective of a cancer muggle. 

It can be hard to let go of old relationships from before cancer. In my experience, it feels like just one more thing cancer screwed up for me. But knowing that I’m finding friends who can handle having a relationship with someone who has been through such a hard thing is so comforting.

While I still wonder if they will leave too or if my past and the effects of it will be too much for them, I find peace in the fact that I now gravitate towards those who have been through hard things too and know what it’s like to struggle as a result of their circumstances. Those who are willing to listen and hold my hand through the hard moments. 

However, I may still be afraid of losing them too. It takes time to learn to trust people again, especially when you crave those deep, meaningful relationships. Because if you lose them, it just hurts that much more. 


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.

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3 Comments

  • Sherry says:

    Beautifully stated! I would like to share this with our cancer alliance mentors if that’s OK. It is really something that would be encouraging for them to read.
    Thanks for sharing and for your courage! God’s many blessings on your life!

    1. Rachel Mihalko says:

      Thank you so much! I would love that! Just be sure to credit me as the author 🙂 I’m so glad this is able to encourage others!

  • Ruth says:

    I always say to people, “Sometimes all you have to say is – I just don’t have the words.” Just the simplest text like, “I’m thinking about you. No need to reply.” can mean the world.

    On the flip side, there are quite a number of people that were in my life and aren’t now because MY health affected THEM too much. I don’t need that toxic guilt as if I did something wrong by getting sick. Good riddens!

    Beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing.

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