The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Cancer’s Crash Course in Relationships…

by Michelle LawrenceSurvivor, Chronic T-Cell Lymphocytic LeukemiaApril 30, 2024View more posts from Michelle Lawrence

Cancer is a disease caused by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body. It has uncontrollably killed my relationships and then has divided my surviving relationships into abnormal categories. These categories are: cancer is slowly killing us, cancer made us stronger, and cancer left us somewhere in the middle. Cancer has impacted my friendships, and I haven’t found a treatment that works yet.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer 14 years ago, some people couldn’t accept my diagnosis and left, literally saying, “I can’t do this.” It was also too much for my ex-husband and some of our friends. They quickly disappeared. It was like someone came and just scooped them out of my life, an extraction. I used to harbor harsh feelings about this. Further in my cancer journey, I realized the people who had left were taking care of themselves. I would encourage anyone to put themselves first. I know seeing someone you care about sick or struggling is difficult; I have many friends with cancer. Sadly, several of my friends have passed away because of cancer. It’s been an honor to be part of their lives. Where there is love, there will always be grief. Everyone is different and has different needs, and I have learned to try and respect that. Understanding doesn’t lessen the pain, but it does alleviate any blame. I don’t blame myself for them leaving, and I blame cancer. My heart will forever hold a place for them; they were a big part of my life.

Cancer is slowly killing us. I don’t know what to do. I have a sprinkling of friends who have faded and are fading. Like your favorite sun-bleached t-shirt. Bright and vibrant at first, but the sun slowly washed the colors away. I am not the person who can jump into the shower and then head out for the night. Everything takes preparation and planning, and frankly, there are some physical limitations I have now. Thanks to my best friend, cancer. So, when folks call me and ask to go to the movies, out to a late dinner, or even shopping (I need that mart cart!) I often have to say, “No, I am sorry, I can’t.” It kills me. Every. Single. Time. Who wants to hear no all the time? I understand. The phone calls fade or stop altogether. Planning a special outing that could include me—people don’t always have time for that. I don’t fit in anymore, and that hurts. Cancer has the power to kill so much, but I keep trying. It hurts my heart, but I have love to give. My love is worth sticking around for.

About a third of the way through my cancer journey, the five-year mark, a few of my relationships had become stronger at first, but that didn’t last because I have chronic cancer. I have had cancer for 14 years. A lot of supporters have gotten tired of hanging around. Repeatedly asking if I will go into remission, be cured, or die soon. The answer is no to all of those. Chronic cancer is tricky like that; it likes to stick around and fuck things up for a long time. Shit or get off the pot, right? So basically, die or be cured. I guess maybe my funeral will have a good turnout. It’s never a nice goodbye; they disappear. I, of course, tried to reach out, but no response. I understand, but it still hurts. Loving me isn’t easy, but I know I am worth it. Fuck cancer.

Cancer made us stronger. I have a sprinkling of family and friends who have been there since the beginning of my journey and are still here; I call them my crew. Tears of gratitude slide down my well-worn cheeks, and a lump in my throat forms as I type this. I am unbelievably grateful; I don’t know how to say it. I love them! I am also scared shitless because I know things could change at any minute. This crew has REPEATEDLY picked up that phone, knowing I could be in tears on the other end. You know those calls, you know you should answer but don’t want to because witnessing someone’s pain is exhausting. This crew is also willing to make accommodations so I can go on outings and are willing to go at a slower pace. But what I LOVE about this crew the most, besides their dedication, is their humor. Cancer jokes are a thing, and these folks can joke with me and make me laugh in the worst of times. Laughter is the best medicine. This crew has reframed things for me, reminded me who I was, and so much more. Cancer repeatedly tries to kill our relationship, but my crew and I are the ultimate survivors.

I also have two independent types of friendships. Friends with cancer, who I will title “criends,” and friends without cancer. You don’t know what cancer is like until you have experienced it. I promise you it isn’t like it is on TV. The community and family don’t always rally around you. People don’t always stop their lives to try and save you. It’s a lot more chaotic, messier, and depressing. Even then, your journey will be unlike mine because we are different people.

Being in a relationship with a “criend” is different because they “get it.” “Criends” understand what a chemo day is, what it is like to be fatigued, lose your hair, gain weight, lose weight, shit yourself, vomit on your favorite outfit, and constantly wonder when or if you are going to expire. “Criends” can recognize the grief surrounding unattended events, strained relationships, and the should’ves and could’ves of life. “Criends” have gotten a glimpse of how a cancer diagnosis puts your life on pause, but the life around you keeps going. It is a surreal feeling. These experiences are difficult to discuss, but with “Criends” it takes just a look and a few words, and they fully understand. One of the blessings of having cancer is I have met some AMAZING “criends.” It is magical. Sadly, a large percentage of my “criends” have been taken by cancer. I do know the pain of watching someone become sick and die. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Those relationships are golden nuggets to be treasured. Love and grief are interwoven; you cannot avoid the pain if you want to experience the love.

Before cancer, making friends was easy. I could bend myself to please anyone and give and give. I was attractive, dressed in my style, and loved jewelry. I was bursting with energy and didn’t even have to consider time. I was far from shy, and cancer hadn’t taken away my self-confidence yet. Post-cancer diagnosis, I am limited in my ability to please and give. I carefully choose who I spend time with. I don’t feel beautiful in my body. Right now, it is just a vessel for my soul. I am more cognizant of time, its constraints, and limitations. Cancer tends to shorten things and morph them into something else. I only have so much energy in one day. I give carefully. My energy is now precious to me, and there are no reserves. The relationships after my cancer diagnosis I value more than before because I am truly giving my all. I, Michelle, am a limited edition.

I am grateful to have cancer because it is a constant life teacher. I am a student and learn something new every day. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. The big C puts things into perspective and will knock you down if you forget. If I give too much in any way, my body will revolt and I am in bed for days. I, of course, say, “Fuck cancer.” It has robbed and beaten me down for 14 years, but there are always two sides. I am still here. So today, as I write this piece, I say thank you. Thank you for teaching me the values of a solid, loving, healthy relationship. Thank you for showing me the most important friendship is with me. Thank you for helping me grow as a person. Thank you for always being by my side and reminding me when I start to go off track. Thank you most of all for teaching me the value of love. Life is precious. We have all heard this, but how many of us live like that? Slow down. Evaluate. Decide. Is this really worth my love, energy, and time? Extract the things that don’t work and get rid of the cancer.

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