"When told at forty, with her youngest child just ten months old, that she had carcinoid tumor, Host felt as if she'd been hurled into a raging river, stripped of all forms of potential rescue. The voyage of this strong-minded, openhearted woman out of that river and onto safe shores is told with uncompromising honesty and respect for the miracles that medicine and love can work."
"When Luanne offered me the guest spot, she asked ‘what I feel friends and family can do, or not do to help someone going through the same thing.' It reminded me of the chapter from my book Between Me and the River, called Friendship and the Map.
The sad truth is that not many friends stick around. There is this odd phenomenon around what happens to our friendships when cancer pulls up a chair. I hope this small bit will help to light your way through the dark halls of the whole horrible cancer experience.
Excerpted from “Between Me and the River,” by Carrie Host
Friendship and the Map
One of the hardest burdens to bear can be the one involving our friends. Cancer means that there will be emotional, physical, and mental suffering. You know this. There will be scars, literally and figuratively. Yet only you will know what has truly gone into the formation of each one.
There will be old maps and new maps. Our doctors are on this new map, and they stay put. We automatically believe that our friends are going to be on it too since they were on the old map but they may not transfer over. Some roads on the old maps that were drawn in pencil may fade and even disappear. Other parts were drawn with indelible ink. You were handed this new road map for your life and made to read it while your friends are still free to choose what they are comfortable facing. This is where the road splits. Your friends have to re-negotiate their own emotions in relationship to you. Whatever your presence in their life once represented has now changed. Certain people will come with you, others will not. This doesn’t automatically sort people into “bad” and “good” but it does sort them into “absent” and “present.”
It’s difficult to understand completely the strange phenomenon around friendship and cancer. We can choose our future doctors but we have already chosen our existing friends. We don’t even question if our friends will stay the course. We believe that their strengths will grow with our own and that they have access to this new map. This is where cancer comes in and charts some unfamiliar territory.
There might be giant voids where certain friends or family members once were. There will be people you have confided in, trusted, and felt you could hold onto but, just like your boat, they drop out from under you. They must have a reason for their withdrawal but it is unlikely they will ever share it with you. Apparently, it is hard enough for them to understand their feelings, much less to communicate them honestly to you.
It seems as if with cancer, you have become less desirable. It may be that at the beginning, the cancer makes it hard for your friends to see you and talk about anything else. On some level, you’re able to understand this so you agree that it makes sense in order to not feel as let down. You are no longer a convenient friend and now require their emotional honesty. You don’t mince words the way you once did. You now say what you mean. This, as it turns out, is uncomfortable for some people.
You might also have physical issues, which may limit your ability to be the person they want to see looking back at them. That scares them. The fact that you may be facing your death forces them to consider facing it too, as well as the idea of their own deaths. With death comes fear, fear that they may have of potentially watching you waste away before their eyes, fear of facing the unspoken parts of the friendship and, possibly, fear of having to take care of those you will leave behind.
Cancer does affect more than us, it deeply affects those who love us. We’re not primed for how unprepared others may be to accept our situation, so we become distraught when they leave. To be fair when we judge them, if we actually had the option to run from the situation ourselves, would we not consider it? We should not expect them to understand our needs, as we are barely able to understand these ourselves.
You may initially be hurt by their sudden disappearance from your life but, interestingly enough, you may find that you can forge a new relationship with yourself through a courage you hadn’t known that you possessed. You can find the strength to create a full life in spite of the emptiness of having lost some of the people in it. We can choose to see what is available rather than what is absent.
The heart has the capacity to generate love, and choosing to give love in your time of greatest need feels a lot better than choosing resentment. You might find that once you experience giving the love that you yourself may have so desperately needed but have been denied, you will be able to return there again and again. You get better at giving love as with anything else, by practicing often. Only love can heal. You can stick with being right or you can experiment with being at peace.
One of the things that your friends may lack is the knowledge of your pain in prematurely having to say good-bye. This is another reason you find yourself torn apart. It’s terrible to mourn the loss of someone you love who is still alive, who could still be with you if only this person had the courage to stay. You think your close friends will be with you for life. But cancer, like the river, can and does pull things away. It runs in currents that are not always visible on the surface. Certain people may not have what it takes to hold on, so they simply let go and are swept away.
Auspiciously, you will discover that friendships exist in places that you didn’t know about with people you weren’t counting on. This is an unexpected sweet spot in the cancer deal. Because of cancer you actually make some new friends. You become a more understanding, loving and authentic version of yourself. These traits make you the kind of companion a friend would want to have. Your new friends recognize that you bear the burden of cancer but they choose you anyway. Isn’t that wonderful?
It is touching the way some of your most genuine friends come closer and don’t need to do a lot of talking. You get to be quiet with them. You also get to share precious laughter about how awful things are while your eyes well up. You let your guard down and together discover humility. You have some middle-of-the-night chats with them where you’re on the phone together in the dark, speaking freely of your deepest fears. It’s with these friends that you access a camaraderie that can only be gained in the trenches.
What I learned is that the friend who’s been brave enough to remain has chosen to become closer to me. That’s incredible. I rejoice that she has chosen to stay by my side, to stay on the map and go with me wherever it leads. Together we’ve discovered that cancer is not necessarily where the road ends, but precisely the opposite, where it begins. My friend’s presence is a hallelujah for the way things are. That is the gift of friendship."
Carrie, thank you so much for stopping by. I think there are very few people who have not had cancer touch their lives. Your journey is an inspiration for all of us.