Breast cancer as a young woman and mother.

Cancer ghosting; breast cancer and friendships.

As your world rocks, cracks and shifts after a diagnosis of cancer, some of the people that you considered your closest friends, family even, fall off the edge. There might be an initial fuss and offers of help. But as the dust settles, phone calls from certain people stop and messages dry up. Invitations become scarce and if you run into them their eyes might avert yours. It’s a shocking, and very painful reality that many patients and survivors of the disease have experienced. In fact it is so common that there is even a term for it, “Cancer Ghosting.”

So what is this unsettling phenomenon between breast cancer and friendships, and what have I learned from experiencing it myself? 

What is cancer ghosting?

When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you expect certain things to happen. You know you will lose your hair and feel rubbish if you have chemotherapy, you expect to potentially lose your breasts, you know right away that life will never be the same again. What you DON’T for a minute expect, or at least I didn’t, is to lose some of your most cherished relationships. 

I think it’s important to emphasise that cancer ghosting is not the same as loved ones of cancer patients experiencing exhaustion and burnout after an extended period of time caring for them. Cancer ghosting often happens early on in the journey, sometimes straight after diagnosis. In my case it was friends I expected very little from that ghosted me. 

Why does “cancer ghosting” happen?

First off let me reassure you of something, IT’S THEM NOT YOU!!! This is their issue not yours. It is also not specific to cancer, I experienced the same thing when I lost my baby. Some people just have no idea how to handle a situation in which  something profoundly life changing happens to a friend. 

I am still confused by cancer ghosting and just how frequently I hear new cancer patients, lost and confused, wondering why it is happening to them. But I have had some time to reflect on it over the past 4 years since my diagnosis and have come up with a few theories. These are not excuses, just possible reasons.

    • They don’t know what to say. 

Some people can’t find the right words in a situation like that. I call it “emotional constipation.” They might be scared of upsetting you by saying the wrong thing, so they choose instead to say nothing.

    • You have become unrelatable to them.

It’s a hard pill to swallow but some people will look at you completely differently when you are going through cancer. Particularly if you display physical changes like losing your hair or breasts. I remember even looking at myself in the mirror wondering who that was looking back. It’s confronting, and sadly some people can’t see past that. 

    • They think that they are respecting your privacy.

They might assume you want to be left alone and don’t want to disturb you. It’s a strange way of thinking, that someone might want to be abandoned during such a terrifying time, but some people will think that way. 

    • They have their own difficult challenges going on.

It might be that they have things going on in their own private lives and don’t have the capacity to take on your problems too.

    • Maybe they just don’t want to take on your troubles. 

Some people are just intrinsically selfish. Being around you might make them feel down or uncomfortable (poor loves) and so they avoid you completely. 

    • They feel triggered by your situation.

Perhaps they have lost a loved one to cancer or been through it themselves and seeing you going through it is triggering for them. In my opinion this is the only reason that is even remotely understandable.

    • You have changed as a person.

Whether that is consciously and proudly, or you stubbornly refuse to believe it, you will have changed. I know that I started prioritising my own wants and needs more than ever before, and developed a zero tolerance for bullshit. It might be an almost imperceptible shift, but some people won’t like it nonetheless. Especially if they are used to you putting their comfort before your own.  

Whatever the reason, cancer ghosting often comes out of nowhere and adds another layer to the challenges you are already facing. It is heartbreaking, and although I have very much forgiven the people that did it to me, they no longer have a place in my life.

On the flip side.

Thankfully on the flip side of cancer ghosting, there are other friends who will remain steadfastly by your side. Supportive pillars that listen to you when you’re down and chat freely about normal stuff on the good days. They will treat you like the person they know and love, unburdened by the shadow hanging over you. Some people even come into your life out of nowhere and like angels seem to know exactly what you need. You might not even have known them before, but they become like family. 

For all its faults, having cancer taught me a lot.

I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but going through something like that has a way of showing you, albeit violently and forcefully, who and what is important in your life. For me, it very much sorted the wheat from the chaff, friendship wise. 

So if you are going through this right now, I’m so sorry. I know you’re feeling shocked and grieving the pre-cancer life that seems to be slipping further and further away. But know this, you will come out of it better and your life will be fuller knowing that the people in it are the really good ones. 

Life is too short to waste on anyone that doesn’t deserve your precious time.

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