When Friends Disappear during Cancer Treatment


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One woman who reads my Blog wrote me about her long-time friends who frequently stayed as guests at her cottage on the East Coast free of charge.   When she was diagnosed with cancer, these friends never contacted her to offer their help or support in any way.   Eight months had elapsed through her Mastectomy, Chemo and Radiation and total silence on their part.  She was so angry at these friends, wanted to share her pain and ask my opinion.  I told her I had no solutions, but understand this to be the experience of most cancer patients as I have seen thousands of posts on this topic.

As a follow up, I wrote her again to inquire what happened with her “friends.”   She said as soon as she completed treatment, they contacted her and indicated they were ready to go to her cottage with her and her husband, never mentioning what she had just been through.  Basically, she told them what she thought about fair-weather friends and let them know they would never be staying with her again.   She said she experienced much freedom emotionally after this conversation.

I’ve been trying to figure this out since my cancer diagnosis.  Why do some friends step forward and help you immediately in loving, kind and supportive ways, and other friends disappear never to return until you (1) are through cancer treatment and live or (2) until they run into you and have to face you.  This has been extremely perplexing to me.

Two of the top searches on my Blog consistently are:

1)  What to Say to a Cancer patient

2)  When friends abandon you during cancer

So the first group is wondering what to say to their cancer patient friend, and the second group is feeling totally abandoned.  They both care enough to search the internet for answers.

This all has been beyond me until I discovered an extremely interesting article in The New York Times entitled “Coping with Crises Close to Someone Else’s Heart.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/health/views/17essa.html?_r=2&ref=health&pagewanted=all

It is a fascinating article which explains that the people who abandon you are terrified that they will attract trauma into their own lives and are desperately afraid to be close to your trauma.  Of course it explains it in much more psychological depth, so I suggest reading the article!

When I examined my wonderful friends and family members who have supported me in unbelievable and consistent ways, I realize that all of them have been through traumas in their own lives.  They are not afraid of trauma.  They have gone through their trials, learned their lessons, and have become stronger and more balanced individuals as a result of them.

People who abandon others either have had no traumas or had traumas, but always ran away from them either by not facing them, running to their addictions, or by putting a happy face sticker over the trauma and never dealing with the psychological or emotional issues.

This article brought me a little peace and a little understanding.  But I am still working through my anger.   UPDATE:    I am now one year post treatment.  I have cleaned out my friend’s closet.  Those who abandoned me are not part of my life now.  If I see them or our paths cross, I am polite.


  1. I haven’t read the article yet that you recommended but having experienced the surprising realization that I have both these sorts of “friends” I want to contribute my heartfelt point of view. I think much of what you offered is right on target. Additionally, I believe there are some people who have experienced deep loss due to cancer who have become unable to open themselves to bearing that tenderness again. So, they run. Sadly, I think what you run from will haunt you more. There are those deep spaces in our souls that do not forget! So, here is where going through the wringer with cancer brings you through to the other side where you can drop the issue and forgive others’ weakness. That doesn’t mean you necessarily invite them back to your summer home (should you have one!) but it means you do not damage your own soul with resentment. Forgive. Let it go. Keep close to those who surprised you with their depth of compassion and caring! You can always choose your friends!

    • Robin, thank you for your meaningful and wise words! I know they help me
      and will help others move beyond the disappointment and hurt to be free of
      resentment and pain!

  2. Your friend’s story is heartbreaking and good for her for letting them know how they failed her.

    If I had it to do all over again (God forbid!) I would take people up on their offers of help. The immediate reaction to hearing about a cancer diagnosis is to say “let me know if you need anything”. The trouble is the newly diagnosed cancer patient is too overwhelmed to even know what they need or will need. I had many offers at the beginning but when things settled down somewhat and I knew what I needed I was old news and the offers had stopped. I also found if I was positive and upbeat when I was asked how I was doing I would hear back from friends. If I was honest, the conversation would quickly end. Or they would ask other people how I was doing instead of speaking to me.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story! I know myself and others can relate
      to your comments! It is impossible for a newly diagnosed cancer patient to
      know what they will need. And you mention some very valid points. I am grateful
      for your post!

  3. Thanks for this honest blog on a hard subject. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April and have been surprised at the friends that were Christmas card, once a year friends. Some of them have been overwhelmingly thoughtful with consistent meals, cards or texts. It wonderful to know you are thought of even months after the surgery. Chemo can be very lonely with this support. And a few friends have been uncharacteristically silent. Two read my blog regularly, but have not called, texted or sent a card, just surprised me. But I know everyone handles crisis differently and I try not to judge, but understand. What I do know is this experience will help me minister and care for others and I will not be shy about reaching out to social friends or friends that are not as close, because every just a text or card brightens my day tremendously.
    Thanks again for the post and the article link.

  4. This is my first visit to your blog. However, even before I read more, I wanted to say thank you for helping to explain something that has bothered me several times since my October 2011 diagnosis with uterine cancer. I have been hurt by friends who have not inquired since they heard the news. In some cases, I kept them informed with emails reporting my experience. I started my own blog when that became tiring. They do not appear to have looked even once. Unlike the woman you wrote about, I decided not to tell anyone how I felt when I was dropped. Of course, none of them have had the gall to contact me for a free place to stay. I decided that it was easier to continue silence. I deleted these people from my email accounts and address books and Christmas card lists. If they do contact me, and two have, I simply acknowledge the message and go on. I do not need friends with the attitude that a friend in need is no friend of mine. I also do not need to let out a reaction to their silence. However, it has eased my pain over being dropped to have some additional rationales for the behavior. I found Janet’s posting helpful, too.

    • Thanks so much for commenting. I am so sorry you have gone through this as well. It is utterly
      shocking to me. It is usually people you would least expect. I have heard this from so many cancer patients,
      so we definitely are not alone. It doesn’t make it any easier, however.
      Thanks for letting me know how you are handling it. I am learning how to be polite, cool and cordial if
      our paths cross. I am very sorry for your diagnosis. I will be checking your blog! Thank you so much!
      My best, Denise

  5. Wow, it’s amazing how many people have experienced friends abandoning them during cancer – i.e. pretty much everyone. I am also surprised that certain people haven’t even been in touch with me, and I put it down partly to the fact that people don’t know what to say, nor what they can do to help, so they don’t get in touch initially and then they think they’ve left it too long to get in touch and they feel bad. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone gets in touch after my whole journey is complete!
    There’s even been guys who had been interested in me before who haven’t been in touch and I often wonder whether it’s because of my blogging about the fact that I might become infertile/am bald/ may have slightly different breasts etc! But I like to give them the benefit of the doubt… hmmm…!
    I am trying very hard not to blame people for not getting in touch, though. Everyone has their own reasons for not getting in touch and at least we know there can’t possibly be anyone thinking “I’m glad she has cancer,” right?! I will have a think about the people who’ve been most supportive to me and whether they’ve had trauma in their own lives. And I’ll scratch the silent ones off the Christmas card list!
    This is what i wrote about first reactions to my diagnosis a while ago:

  6. I experienced abandonment and domestc violence just prior to my bilateral mastectomy and during my recovery and reconstruction. Can’t help thinking I am the lone ranger in this experience. Do you know of anyone who has gathered statistics on this?

  7. I have been in deep emotional pain over the loss of two very close friends during my cancer treatment. Two other childhood friends just materialized out of the blue to socialize with me after having been completely vacant during my cancer journey. So much grieving and sadness have defined my days as I just wanted to understand what went wrong. So frustrating to be so ignored by those with whom I’d enjoyed such valuable friendship… Finally, it was time to research this (I’d felt so alone!). Thank you for this beautifully written article. I still grieve but I also see the reasons behind such behavior and I no longer personalize. I also feel such incredible gratitude for those who have stuck with me thru all of this. It has been a very long road. I feel sad that I will probably not welcome these people back into my life should they experience a change of heart as they begin to feel haunted by their very act of leaving. I’ve learned so very much from your words and have taken much to heart. It is good to feel uplifted and no longer alone in my pain.

  8. I understand how you all must feel.i have brain cancer and im coming up for my fourth month of chemo.the man i love and who says he loves me has not been to visit me once.he lives two hours flying time from me,he has the means to travel and the time.sure ive had texts asking how i am,but ive had to beg for a phone call.i always try to sound upbeat and happy when we talk as i know that what he likes,but there aré times when im feeling so ill and i just wish he was close.he would send me texts telling me to be strong and that he loves me,but ive recieved no flowers no card,nothing.so i sent him an email telling that i dont understand how he can say he loves me and not visit me once.it hurts so much.just knowing that he is off traveling around the world having fun while im lying here ill.he didnt respond to my email,its been two weeks now,nothing no responce at all,and i have not insisted.i wish i could be the happy healthy person that he fell in love with five years ago.im lucky to have lovely friends who support me,but im heartbroken to lose the person i loved the most.much love to anyone going through the same.love and light

  9. I found out I had breast cancer while being worked up as a possible kidney donor for my husband. We had the double whammy of me having to have chemo and my husband had to start dialysis. We had just moved to a major city a year prior and didn’t know many people. My family stayed away. We went to every appointment, every surgery, every emergency room visit with each other or alone. He ended up getting a kidney eventually after 5 years on dialysis (with no visits or help from my mother or two sisters), had complications, and almost died. No one came to the hospital, no flowers, no cards. The excuse was that it was too far away, although my retired mother visited her sister every summer for several months half a state away. My mother and sister visited Europe twice within this time period. Then magically he received a second transplant, I was cancer free, and we were standing in the sunlight blinking. We have been in good health now for about five years. My mother is now elderly, frail, and starting to have failing health. I live closer to all of them now and am starting to be expected to help out, taking her to appointments and staying with her. I am having serious issues about this and really don’t know if I have it in me to participate. I totally understand what you all are going through, and the deep sadness that you must be feeling. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and hang in there. It might not work out for the best but then again it might.

    • I am so very sorry you had to face these challenging and hurtful
      family issues. Talk about pain. Thanks for sharing your story
      with us to help others. It is all so difficult. Denise

  10. I got a lot from the article. Diagnosed in April. Flurry of the “if you need anythings”… but I feel like I have cooties. You sure learn who your friends really are and they are some people you least expect.

    • Karen, it really is surprising to find out that the people
      you least expect step up and do amazing things for you!
      And others, nothing. It causes much joy and much sadness.
      Thanks for sharing your story. Love your description of
      “but I feel like I have cooties.” Sad but true! Denise

  11. I was diagnosed with stage two, anal cancer only seven weeks ago (this is the first time I’m writing about this). I reached out to a few close friends and very few family members, the people who I have considered life connections throughout the years. Only my sister, my aunt, my husband and five close friends know of my condition. Four have stepped up to plate to give help, all offered immediately help in any way they could. I’ve been lucky. My sister and my husband have been most consistent. I see my sister every week for two days. She gets off work late Wednesday night and arrives at my place at 1 a.m. Thursday morning. She stays with me all day and and night, takes me to my radiation appointment Friday and then goes home. She has been doing this since the beginning of my treatment. My husband has been through it all of course. He’s very messy and causes more chores for me to do, he’s forgetful, he’s drinking far too much and sometimes he’s clueless but he’s here. I’ve had two friends over to help out with chores, cooking meals and what ever they could do to help. I feel blessed that they love me enough. I feel important and wanted.

    I’m having a hard time with understanding why my other friends, friends who I’ve grown up with, friends who said they consider me their brother, have merely sent text messages and rarely even call. I wonder why they choose to stay away. I knew having cancer would be life changing but I never considered that it was going to change relationships in my life. Cancer is deeper than just in my body. Cancer is changing the way I look at a lot of things especially the way I see the relationships in my life. I wasn’t ready for this. I keep hearing my deceased mother saying, “You will be lucky if you have one really good friend in life.” She wasn’t lying.

    Loyalty is a very meaningful word in my vocabulary. It is a word that is as important to me as love. Both go hand-in-hand and I believe you can’t have one without the other. I have considered myself the most loyal and loving friend to those I have referenced earlier. Through the years I have vacated friendships that were less meaningful to me. As I grow older I just don’t have the time or inspiration to develop closer friendships with a bunch of acquaintances that couldn’t or wouldn’t appreciate my loyalty or love in the first place so we no longer speak and I’m truly happier. I’ve always been very organized, clearing out clutter is refreshing.

    I just can’t believe the very friends I have worked so hard to develop lasting, loving, close, rewarding relationships with have abandoned me in the toughest time of my life. Did I mention that I’m also HIV-positive ? These very friends know just how serious a cancer diagnosis is with me, they know the fear I have living with HIV and now cancer, yet they’re not here. No phone calls, no visits, no cards, no emails just an occasional text message filled with platitudes. I most certainly have more de-cluttering to do in my life and when I’m back on my feet I will foster better relationships with those who stuck around and were ACTUALLY here for me. The others, well they can go on doing what they’re doing but without me.

    • I so much appreciate your sharing your story. It is painful to write it, but I hope you found it healing. This is definitely the hardest lesson of cancer. And even harder is once you get back on your feet (AND YOU WILL!!) some of those people will try to get back into your life.
      I so much wish I could make this painful road easier for you. But I hope knowing that you are not the only one out there that experiences this, somehow makes it easier to accept.
      Thanks for writing so you can help others…that’s certainly what it is all about. My best to you!

  12. Thank you for addressing this issue. I am sure that some people leave because of the reasons you mention, they have not had trauma in their own lives and just can’t deal with. I agree, it is their own fear. I had many friend leave, disappear, or start friendship ending fights also. Many of these people HAVE had trauma in their own lives. And I think they were scared of re-experiencing that and angry, and unable to express any of it. Some hadn’t fully dealt with their own pain, and me getting cancer re stimulated old feelings that hadn’t been addressed. Also, it think me getting cancer made them realize that anyone can get it, and that was hard to deal with.

    For me, this was absolutely the most challenging AND growth producing part of having had cancer, more than chemo, more than surgeries and hair loss. It gave me the opportunity to re evaluate my friendships, and really consider which relationships in my life are truly equal.

    Thanks again!
    Inspired Girl
    ~aka ~Barbara

  13. My friend of 23 years deceided to not be my friend anymore. She never called me back when I called her to talk with her during my 14 treatment of Raditation. We were friends through so many times in our lives, and I was always there for her. She has moved on to other friends, and it is sad to see this and it hurts so so much. Cancer takes, and cancer has taken so much from me, my body, my mind sometimes, and my dreams, I am still in Raditation and drive over 50 miles one way when I am done, I hope to just live my life as I want to. My family is there and a one friend is still very supportive. But loosing that friend, was a the biggest blow I have had. It seems she planned it this way. Well, thanks for this blog and thanks for you. God Bless you all.

    • Oh Nancy, I am so very, very sorry to hear this. Unfortunately, it is a
      situation that happens oh so often. I grieve for you and the loss of that
      friendship. The most challenging part will be if when you are “out of cancer treatment”,
      they start coming back and acting like everything is fine. Obviously, it is
      not. Sending understanding your way…I’m still grieving the loss of friends.
      It is just awful…

  14. I have very mixed feelings about this. Partly it’s because of changes in me. I am more in need of friendships, support, cards, calls, and basically any contact than before; an intolerable day during AC treatment (or just one in which I feel like I can’t get anything done and feel like lying on the couch feeling crummy all day) is brightened considerably from any contact. I have been very fortunate to have had a great deal of support from my sister, who has had several surgeries and chronic pain, and who understands my situation well, as well as from neighbors, many of whom have brought me food during chemo, and being able to pay someone I know well to clean my house, which would have been difficult during many stages of this. However, I felt hurt that people that I’ve known for many years from work, and felt close to, didn’t contact me (they read my emails, but that didn’t help me)…that others contacted my sister, not me, to see how I was doing, and that still other close friends more or less disappeared.
    I have always had a hard time asking for help, and still do, although I’m reaching out more than before, and this helps. I also have a hard time knowing what to ask for – especially since it’s so unpredictable.
    After surgery and reconstruction, I was on pain pills for some time, mainly because the reconstruction was s/w rocky, and this kept me from driving, so some of the help I needed was very banal – just to go to the drugstore and browse for things I needed, the bank to cash checks or to get cash, or to someplace other than medical visits and the pharmacy. And it seemed too banal to ask for it. After AC started, I felt like saying “come live with me and take out the garbage and do the cat litter and help me put away the dishes on the bad days, and help me pay my bills and organize my life and even figure out what to eat on other days…read my emails, or help me get something done…anything!” But that didn’t seem like an appropriate request, so even when people earnestly said “let me know what you need”, and really seemed to mean it, I was at a loss. So some of the disconnect is from me.
    The other thing is, I’ve been on the other side. I basically abandoned a friend with cancer whose husband was so protective of her that it was difficult to get through to her. I should have persisted more, and just left messages. At other times, I didn’t know what to say, which in retrospect seems like a lame excuse, but that’s how I felt at the time. I think people don’t always know that you still want to talk to them, even when you’re going through something pretty unpleasant. And that it’s OK for me to complain, and for them to listen to my complaints. Put on a happy face isn’t always possible, or reasonable. I also don’t think people know how much it means to just check in to see how you’re doing, and to drop by and spend a few moments talking – functional help is very, very wonderful (food, cleaning, etc.), but simple emotional help, i.e., talking, sharing, is also very important.
    I knew beforehand that some people would disappear, and that it would be s/w unpredictable who they would be. Some, like me at times, would be almost phobic about serious illness, which is genuinely scary. Others would just be at a loss for words, or actions, and disappear out of shyness, uncertainty, and then guilt over not knowing what to do. Others have jumped in occasionally to help out immeasurably, but then I may not hear from them in a month. There may be some where the break is too major, but having been on both sides, I would suggest trying a bit harder to connect, if you haven’t already, and forgiving those who have a hard time connecting, if possible. Let them know how to connect with you, if you can (when I get the energy, I intend to, but that energy, of course, is part of the problem). And that just checking in consistently is a really valued thing to do. It may not work for you, but it helps me breathe easier.

  15. My daughter experienced all of her friends acting as if she was already dead when she got her diagnosis. A lot of family members also never came to see her or call her or anything. It was mostly just me and her and the hospice workers. It was terribly sad. I hurt so much for her, knowing how she had cared so much about these people but only one and her brother and sister came to see her. It was hard for me because I had no one to turn to through it all either and then, of course, I lost her. It has been a year and a half now and I was just beginning to think about a future. But we just found out that my son has a malignancy. They are still testing to see how bad it is. I am scared to death. The family I was just beginning to enjoy visiting again won’t talk to me again already. How do I be strong enough to do this again?

    • Oh Linda, my heart aches for you. First of all I am so sorry you are finding out about your son right now…
      Whatever steps you made toward emotional healing go right back. And since your daughter passed away, words like
      “maybe this will be better” don’t mean a whole lot. Myself, my mom and sister were all diagnosed with breast cancer
      within 3 years. It was like one long nightmare because one ran into the other.
      BUT we all lived and your daughter died. Behind words how challenging that is, Linda.
      As for others – they do run for the hills as I call it. Every cancer patient I’ve ever talked with, and they are
      in the thousands, say the same thing. Some run unexpectantly toward them, and some you thought for sure would be
      there are not.
      Sending a hug and wish I had some comforting words, but I don’t. But I care. My best, Denise

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