When I was first diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer in January 2016 I was surrounded by support. Nearly 100 cards and parcels were delivered to our door, filling our home with love and encouragement. I felt safe and secure in a bubble of warmth created by those that I care about.
When my cancer went into remission 8 months later, however, I received just a handful of cards. There were certainly no less people in my life so why was it, I wondered, that people were more willing to show support for the pain but not for the joy?
Then, in late December 2017 (just a few months ago), my cancer came back. This time it had filled my right lung with fluid and I was back on the cancer road again…although, in honesty, with stage four cancer you are never truly off the road, just parked at the side. My time quickly became filled with more tests, scans, X-rays and my mind was overwhelmed with fear. I had always thought that a cancer diagnosis is the worst thing imaginable, however I was wrong. The worst thing is a cancer recurrence. When your cancer returns you know what the road looks like and you also know that, this time, there might not be a rest spot on your journey.
What surprised me most was the reaction from some of the people in my life. There was a definite lack of support that had been there when I first had cancer. Now, before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am not blaming anyone. I have cancer and I know that when my fellow warriors had a recurrence I had no idea how f*cking awful it feels. I know I never said the right thing or even did the right thing. I am writing this firstly in recognition and admittance of this; secondly to help others know how to support a friend or loved one with cancer/after cancer/following a recurrence; and, above all, to let my fellow warriors know that they are not alone and that I hear and see them and their fears.
I’ve written this post with the help of a dear friend with stage three ovarian cancer (what’s up girl!) who has supported me for nearly two years and who I will finally meet this month when she comes to Scotland (Whoop!) It is slightly tongue and cheek, however, everything detailed has happened to one of us or one of our fellow warriors at some point. Please read this with the same dark sense of humour that we both share and use it to help you to support someone you love who has cancer or, if you have cancer yourself, to reassure yourself that your friends are not a-holes, they just don’t know what to say.
1 The ‘Gleeful/Gossip’ Friend
“So, tell me all about your hospital appointment. How did it go? What did they say? You must be so scared. How do your family feel? It must be so sad for them. What about [insert partner’s name]? It must be just awful for the two of you and your relationship.”
You can tell this friend apart from all of your other friends because they have a slight smile on their face and they seem to emphasis every word they say with a slight undertone of glee. You know they don’t actually give a shit about what happened in the hospital and that they are having this conversation so they can feedback to others. The biggest tell-tell-sign that you have encountered this friend is the use of the word ‘must’ instead of actually asking you. They are projecting their thoughts onto you and they are never positive ones. My response is usually “why ‘must’ I/my family/Ewan feel that way?”
2 The ‘Your Situation Reminds Me of When I went Through Something Completely Unrelated’ Friend
“Oh you had a complete hysterectomy, I know exactly how you feel. When I had a c-section it was so painful I could barely pick up my baby.”
Bleh! Just F off with yourself will you! I’m sure this needs no explanation but, just in case, firstly, a c-section in no way is anywhere near the same as open abdominal surgery to remove all of your reproductive organs and, secondly, you have a f*cking baby! How about you be grateful for that in front of the friend who can’t have children.
3 The ‘My Friend Has Cancer, Pity Me’ Friend
“I’m having a really hard day because my pal has cancer…”
Now, of course, your friends are going to have really shitty days where the reality of your diagnosis hits them like a ton of metaphorical bricks and man I would like to punch anyone who didn’t give someone I love some compassion if they were upset about my situation. However(!) the ‘friend’ I am referencing here is not the same, instead they are ‘using’ your situation for pity, rather than because they are genuinely upset.
4. The ‘Let’s Pretend it’s Not Really Happening’ Friend
“You look great, what you been up to?”
You’ve just come out of hospital for a week. They know you’ve just come out of hospital. Yet, they cannot bring themselves to mention the fact. Instead they act as if nothing is wrong at all. However, you see the silent plea in their eyes and you hear the fake cheer in their voice. You know that this friend is probably hurting just as much as you and that mentioning cancer or hospital would result in them trembling in sadness. So, instead you find yourself responding with “I’m great thanks, how are you?”
What would probably be better for you both would be a good cry together.
5 The ‘I Had This One Friend Who Survived Cancer’ Friend
“I had a friend who had [insert a type of cancer completely unrelated to yours – in particular one that is much less aggressive or caught earlier than your own] and they were completely cured so you will be fine. You just have to stay positive and everything will work out just as it did for them.”
This friend is not dissimilar to the aforementioned “Let’s Pretend it’s Not Really Happening Friend”. They are clutching at anything that will make them believe that there is no possibility of loosing you. I’ve learned to thank them politely and move on because I know the are hurting inside and that trying to educate them on my diagnosis will only cause them more pain.
6 The ‘Whispering’ Friend
“So, do you think your ‘cancer’ [insert hushed tone] is the reason you’re not well again?”
I used to want to scream “are you a f*cking idiot, of course I do, I have STAGE FOUR CANCER.” But I’ve learned that this is not the most helpful response. Instead I politely say, “my symptoms are in keeping with a recurrence. Let’s see what the results show.” My fellow warrior friend recently joked to me that “cancer is the equivalent of the word Voldemort in Harry Potter: it can’t be named.” This is a sad but true fact for some friends.
7 The ‘Pity’ Friend
“I feel so sad for you [insert head tilt].”
Of course there is nothing wrong with a friend telling you they feel sad for you, but the pity head tilt makes me want to gag. I don’t think anything makes my skin crawl more than someone pitying me…perhaps I have ‘issues’ here but I don’t know many people who would like to be pitied. Worse still is the friend with fake pity – see “TheGleeful/Gossip Friend” above. My fellow cancer warrior recently joked, “do you know the worst thing about those who express fake pity when they see you? They are the ones that will be crying their eyes out at your funeral!” …hmmm…maybe I should create a guest list…
8 The ‘I’ve Had the Worst Day’ Friend
“I’ve had such a bad day, I’m so tired and stressed…and so on and so on.”
Picture this: you are in hospital, you’ve just had a dose of chemotherapy that is destroying all of your cells; you’ve vomited on yourself several times; you’ve lost all your hair; you are recovering from surgery; you have been told you might die; and so on…sometimes, just sometimes, your patience wears a little thin when people moan to you about stuff in their life that they have the power to change and/or fix.
9 The ‘Really? Again?’ Friend
“But, I thought your cancer had gone?”
No matter how many times I’ve explained that my cancer is incurable so many people were shocked when it returned. I wasn’t shocked, however, I was just p*ssed off! The worst part of this friendship is that it is like they used all of their energy dealing with your cancer the first time round. You are often left feeling like your cancer is an inconvenience to them because you have it again – after all, how dare you be so selfish as to have cancer more than once! I struggle to have time for these people.
10 The ‘Invisible’ Friend
This is the hardest friend to come to terms with because one day they are there and the next they aren’t. Maybe the just fade away; maybe they stop messaging or calling; maybe they are always busy when you are trying to catch up with them; maybe they block you on social media; maybe you have a big fight. It doesn’t matter which scenario causes you no longer be in each other’s lives, the pain is still the same. I wrote about this scenario in my book and it is one that affects most (if not all) cancer warriors. As I say in my book, I try to comfort myself with the thought that this friend loves you the most and that they just can’t cope with the situation. It’s either that or they are a total **** [please insert an appropriate profanity of your choosing].
Of course, there is a flip side to the coin. For every friend that doesn’t know what to say or how to act there is the friend who holds you in their heart as they have always done. Here are just a few examples of some of the most precious encounters I’ve had since my initial diagnosis and recurrence. (Disclaimer: I like a friend with a dark sense of humour so these are not suggestions for you to try on your friends who don’t).
The Friend Who Treats You Exactly The Same
You may have cancer but, guess what. You are still the exactly the same person as you were yesterday and that you will be tomorrow. Friends that hear my concerns but don’t let me wallow in self-pity, instead near slagging me off, are my favourite kind of people.
Some of my favourite comments over the past two years are:
- “Can I wear nipple tassels to your funeral?”
- “I’ll just be delighted to not have to make GF Vegan Raw shite anymore to be honest.”
- “Stop making it all about you all the time Fi.”
- “Man, you always have to go one up don’t you?”
- “If you ever get really bad, do you want me to bring you some wine? If you are f*cked anyway you might as well enjoy yourself.”
And sometimes it’s not just the cheeky comments that make all the difference. Sometimes it’s the little actions that make you realise that your fiends still sees you as you. Here are just a few lovely examples:
- Friends that ask you out for spa days when you don’t have hair and aren’t feeling girly – they still you as gorgeous and feminine.
- Friends that bring their new shoes to show you when you are in hospital – they are bringing some normality to their visit rather than talking about cancer all the time.
- Friends that pop in for a cuppa while you are having chemotherapy treatment – rather than making it weird and awkward, they treat it just as if you are meeting in a cafe.
- The friend who brings their kids to see you in hospital – after all, why shouldn’t you enjoy the company of children just because you are in the care of medics.
- The friend who brings you a takeaway – need I say more.
The Friend Who Sends You Pictures To Make You Smile
Sometimes friends don’t know what to say, and that’s ok. Christ, half the time I don’t know what I want them to say anyway. The key is to not say nothing. If you don’t say anything then you become the aforementioned “Invisible Friend”, and no one wants that. Instead, I have many friends who simply send me a picture that will make me smile or who say “I have no idea what to say” and then send me a picture. This is beautiful. It’s true what they say, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
The Friend Who Listens
Sometimes I want to talk about normal, funny, every day stuff. However, sometimes I also want to talk about the shite reality of my health situation. During these times it’s really good to have a friend who can, just for the moment, set aside their own concerns and questions and just listen to what I have to say. I know it’s painful for them and I certainly don’t want our precious encounters to be overrun by ‘cancer chat’ but it is nice to know that I have friend I can vent to when I need to. It’s also nice to have friends I can cry with too.
The Friend Who Has Cancer Too
On the darkest days and at your lowest points, there is no one who can pick you up as quickly as someone who has cancer too, in particular, someone with the same diagnosis as yours. Sometimes just having a brief conversation, laugh or b*tching session with someone who just ‘gets it’ is all the therapy you need to pull yourself back together and face the world again. I am forever grateful for the connection I have made with my fellow warriors, together we are stronger. Thank you.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own experiences. Please drop me a message or comment to let me know.
Love and Light, Fi xxx
Check out my latest book “Love, Light and Mermaid Tails; One Woman’s Journey Back to Wholeness Through Stage Four Cancer”, now available to buy worldwide in paperback and on kindle.