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“It’s Not You, It’s Your Cancer”

by Chelsey GomezSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaFebruary 28, 2024View more posts from Chelsey Gomez

Did you know that some people will stop being your friend simply because you got sick? I didn’t know this was a “thing” until I myself was diagnosed with cancer. If you are reading this as someone outside the cancer community, you’re probably shocked or think I’m mistaken. I’m not. It’s happened to me and countless others. So, let’s talk about it.

Losing friends this way can feel like a dirty little secret. In fact, I thought it was just me this happened to until I started sharing it through my artwork. Gradually, I discovered that many of us can relate to this experience, considering it a box to check off on our “cancer bingo” card. As common as this is, it’s something that people don’t talk about much. Why? Frankly, it induces a profound sense of shame and embarrassment. As you gaze at yourself in the mirror, you can’t help but wonder how horrible of a person you must be for a so-called “friend” to abandon you simply because you’ve become a part of the cancer world.

This phenomenon of “cancer ghosting” isn’t exclusive to cancer patients alone. Caregivers, and even parents of children with cancer, have shared their experiences with me of going through this too. Another sad reality is that those who ghost us aren’t just “friends”—sometimes they are also family members. I’ve noticed that it seems that the longer you’re sick, the more people disappear.

When my cancer relapsed, it seemed like all I could hear were crickets. Those who had previously offered help seemed to have reached their “quota.” It appeared that my cancer story, which had once been a tale of determination and hope, had now transformed into a stark reminder of mortality. Imagine being the individual truly confronting their own mortality, witnessing those they believed loved them no longer showing any care or concern. Oof.

Simply put, that shit HURTS.

Many nights were spent in tears, replaying scenarios in my mind, trying to understand why they chose to leave. My thoughts rapidly turned toxic, tainted by self-blame and overwhelming shame. I’ve spent the last few years trying to open up conversations about hard things like this. I do it because I remember feeling incredibly isolated, believing that this secret was mine alone to bear. Surely those heartwarming stories of cancer patients with so much support are the norm. Surely this is just a “me” thing. Just to reiterate—it’s not you, it’s most definitely them.

It might sound a bit strange but dealing with the silence from friends somehow hurt worse on most days than my treatments. It was a hollow sort of ache in my chest that never went away. It felt like I was grieving a death where I never got to say goodbye; I guess in some ways that is true. In reality, it was more like I, myself had died and heaven had Wi-Fi. From my chemo chair I would catch glimpses of how much better their lives were than mine. I had a front row seat via social media to witness how they were moving on. Without me.

What did I do? I just got sick . . .

If I were actually gone, maybe it would be easier. I could believe they genuinely missed me amidst those flawlessly posed selfies. Instead, I’m very much alive, on the sidelines, doing my best not to let the tears f low. I just want you to know it’s OK to be sad about this. To cry, scream, or go on an Amazon shopping spree for serotonin purposes. It’s hurtful beyond comprehension.

Twice a week for nearly three years, I’ve shared anonymous stories from the cancer community on my Instagram page @ohyouresotough. A common theme in these stories of course, is the experience of being ghosted, and I’ve closely examined the reasons given by these “ghosts” over the years. Most of us don’t ever get an explanation, but some were brave enough to ask (and actually got a reply). Most don’t get a reply. I didn’t get a reply. Even nearly five years later, I find myself searching for reasons in the stories of others. I’d like to share a few of these recurring themes with you in the hope that it might offer some form of closure or understanding.

Firstly, I just want to say that I have a hard time reconciling any of these as a valid excuse to abandon someone at their lowest. This isn’t a full commentary on how valid their reason is or isn’t. This is very simply my observations and opinions.

“I didn’t know what to say” is probably the most common reason I come across for why someone ghosts their sick friend. I understand that people may feel uneasy about saying the wrong thing, especially given the sometimes-toxic positivity that’s directed at cancer patients, like “You got this!” or “Everything happens for a reason!” I’ve heard from some that they’re intimidated and end up saying nothing at all. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again— please don’t say nothing. The silence can be more hurtful than anything. I might be able to forgive a friend for their overly positive but well-intentioned comments, but I find it harder to forgive them for becoming a ghost. Don’t overthink what you should say. Just speak from your heart.

“I had my own stuff to deal with” is the second most common reason I’ve heard. When I encounter this, I’m immediately reminded of the concept that people make time for those they want to. While it’s true that not everyone has the emotional bandwidth to be constantly available during a tough time and not everyone has the freedom to drive a friend to chemotherapy, it’s also true that most of us have our phones in our hands for a significant part of the day. Everyone has the capacity to send a quick text to their friend with cancer.

“I was scared” is another common excuse I come across in these stories. This fear takes on different forms, but the one I hear most often is the fear of losing the sick friend. I know it sounds ironic, they ghost you, yet they are afraid of losing you? Some people can’t comprehend the very real threat to your existence, and they’re scared to even see you. Pretending like it isn’t happening becomes an easier coping mechanism for them. I can relate to part of this coping mechanism. Personally, I was somewhat ~*delulu*~ (delusional) during a significant part of my cancer experience because it was a survival mechanism. It’s not the best way to deal with trauma; in fact, it’s not even a good way to deal with trauma. The trauma always spills out eventually. To our friends who fear losing us—I get it. I’m scared too. But if you took my hand and walked next to me, it might be less frightening for both of us.

While the reasons people ghost us may vary, the underlying message is clear: the power of love, understanding, and friendship cannot be understated. When you’re dealing with something as tough as cancer, you need allies—those who check in often or just here and there, those who know what to say and even those who drop a simple “thinking of you.” It’s about having people in your corner who won’t bail when things get tough. I hope this article has given you a peek into the often-tricky dynamics of dealing with sickness and relationships. You’re not going through this painful experience alone. Remember, you’re loved, and there’s a wonderful cancer community full of potential new friends out there. And if you haven’t made any cancer friends yet, consider me your first.

This article was featured in the March 2024 Friendships issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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