“My Friend Has Cancer and Doesn’t Want to Talk to Me About It”

I want to reconnect – connect more closely – with my best friend, “Sarah.” We have been friends for 40 years! Moves have sometimes forced our relationship to be via calls and texting more than visits, but we live about an hour away from each other now. She was supportive of me as a family member died of cancer, and she herself was diagnosed with a dangerous cancer about a year ago. She was terrified and I was devastated.

For three years prior, I went to chemo appointments, check-ups, CT and PT scans, and surgeries with my sick family member. I know the cancer fight. I told Sarah that I would be there with her as she fought her battle. I offered to drive her for her first surgery. She broke my heart when she told me that I did not have the attitude that she needed. She felt a positive attitude would lead to a positive outcome. (It sounded like denial to me, but I didn’t say it aloud.) She told me she did not want me to go with her or discuss her cancer. I admit that I see the dark first. I think I’m a realist. However, I did not talk to her about the survival rate for her type of cancer; I told her that I knew people who had survived it.

It’s been a year now and we still don’t talk about it. We don’t talk nearly so often about anything. Any ideas on how to rebuild connections? Cancer treatment is part of her life now. It’s difficult to have conversations that don’t veer that direction. I miss our easy flow of friendship. — Missing My Friend

It sounds like you were intimately involved in the cancer treatment of your family member’s battle with the disease, and I can appreciate that you understand what it entails more than people who haven’t had that experience. But. But that doesn’t mean you know the cancer fight like someone who is fighting cancer. That’s like saying as a wannabe-ally to the Black Lives Matter movement that you know what it’s like to be Black. No amount of education, friendships, or family ties with Black people, honest conversations about their experiences, and involvement in active anti-racism measures will ever mean you know what it’s like to be Black if you aren’t Black, and the first step toward authentic allyship is to acknowledge that. To argue otherwise would be insulting and would suggest that, despite all the education and the first-hand insight you’ve been privileged to glean, you still don’t get it. Unless you have faced the fear of losing your life to cancer, you don’t get it. I think a first step to re-connecting with your friend is acknowledging that – first to yourself.

When Sarah was diagnosed with cancer, you say that you were “devastated” and she was “terrified.” It’s important to think about the difference in those sentiments. “Terror” is something that puts you on the defense. It activates a fight response. To beat terror, you have to pull in all your reserves – including positive thinking – and block out all the distraction. In “being a realist,” you signaled to Sarah that YOU were a distraction if one of the tools she’s using is positivity. Saying you know people who have survived her type of cancer isn’t being positive; Saying you know SHE is going to beat the cancer is. You can call it denial or tell yourself it isn’t helpful not to face the reality of the situation, but Sarah very clearly told you what she needs in her cancer fight and it isn’t your job to tell her she’s wrong.

So… how can you reconnect with Sarah? Well, for starters, you can acknowledge that she very likely doesn’t have the energy or time to meet YOUR needs right now. She’s busy fighting cancer. Maintaining an easy flow of friendship isn’t her priority right now. She cannot be what you need at the moment. But you can be more of what SHE needs. You can — and should — prioritize those needs above your own right now. A good start would be acknowledging that you don’t know what she’s going through, that you’re sorry if you ever implied that you did, and that what you do know about the fight against cancer is how important inner strength and stamina are and that you know Sarah has those things in spades. You can tell her how impressed you are by her and tell her that while you respect her wishes to keep her cancer fight and your friendship separate, if she were willing to let you bridge the two, you would be willing to do whatever she needs for that to happen, including – and especially – being a cheerleader. And if she decides that there is not a place for you on her cancer team, you have to respect that and continue letting her show you whatever space might be available for you in her life right now while you lean into other friendships and relationships to meet your needs.

Vintage DW (this post was originally published February 15, 2011)

I’m a 39-year-old woman and I broke up with my boyfriend of three months about two weeks ago. We broke up on bad terms; I had a hunch he was cheating because he suddenly, for no reason, hid everything on his Facebook page. I told him I didn’t trust him, and he basically said that we should just be friends. I was crushed and haven’t contacted him, but I knew he was still my friend on Facebook and would see my posts. So … I decided to invent a fake boyfriend. I created a fake Facebook identity, complete with fake friends and even a fake profile picture, and then I basically “friended” myself. Over the past week, the fake boyfriend posted things on my wall and asked me out on dates, all for the purpose of making my ex jealous! Then I changed my relationship status to “In a Relationship.” Well, my ex saw that and sent me a message saying that if I was trying to hurt him, he didn’t really know me. Then he unfriended me.

I thought that if it looked like I had a boyfriend, it would seem like he didn’t mean that much to me. I wanted to hurt him, but now I feel even worse. I am totally ashamed that I would do something so petty and juvenile. How do I fix this situation? Should I just leave my ex alone and move on? Should I admit what I did and apologize? I’m really not a crazy person; I was just hurt, and now I really regret behaving like a twelve-year-old! — Regretting Fake Facebook Status

You can read my response here.

***************Follow along on Facebook,  and Instagram. If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.


  1. greenheron says:

    Sometimes you really don’t want to talk about your health problems! So what I would do is reach out and talk to Sarah about whatever things you talked about before her diagnosis. Say you’re thinking of her and hope she’s well – and then talk about your families, or discuss a good book you’ve read/movie you’ve seen, or reminisce about your school days. Maybe ask her if there’s a TV show she watches regularly, and watch it too so you can discuss it. She might have less time for chit-chat now, so try not to take it personally if she can talk less frequently, but even sending her happy birthday texts is something.

  2. Ohhhh, my, is LW#1’s story ringing a bell.

    I have a friend whose area of expertise is financial planning/life planning. Super good with numbers, not always so good with emotional stuff. He’s practical and responsible to a fault.

    Awhile back, a close friend of his called him to say that he’d received a potentially terminal diagnosis. After expressing shock and regret and sorrow, my friend immediately launched into the list of things that would need to be done. “Wow, you’re going to have to sell your house pretty quickly then. And have a will drawn up, and get a power of attorney….”

    You can imagine the reaction from his friend. Got his head bitten right off. Came to me because he didn’t understand the anger. He genuinely thought he was being helpful.

    LW, I’m sure you thought you were being helpful, too, by providing a realistic perspective and offering your help as an Authority on Cancer. And that was exactly the wrong thing to do.

    Everybody deals with devastating illnesses in a different way. If she wants to be in a bit of denial, that’s absolutely her right, and your judgmental comment about her denial really turned me off. If she wants to think positively while going through her treatment, yay for her (and yes, studies have shown that attitude matters a great deal). Not your call to say otherwise.

    Yes, you can approach her in the way that Wendy suggested. But if you can’t give her exactly what she told you she needs – if you can’t keep your negativity 100% under control and be her personal ray of sunshine – then for her sake, please don’t .

  3. LW#1 – speaking as someone who has fought the cancer fight – I can tell you that when your life revolves around doctor appointments, surgeries, treatments, tests and test results – cancer just overtakes you. When I was in the thick of it – the things I cherished most were those limited times when I could feel “normal” if just for a little while. Conversations with friends where the subject of cancer was off the table were a lifeline for my sanity.

  4. I remember LW#2 — just another poster who confuses FB-world with real life.

  5. Agree with all this, and off the topic of cancer diagnosis but just to give a simpler example, when I was laid off from my job a few years ago, there were people who responded in a way that was helpful, and people who probably thought they were being helpful but actually just pissed me off so that I didn’t want to talk to them about it. Same goes for a lot of painful situations we might be going through, like IVF, loss of a loved one, divorce, all kinds of things. You can be very well-intentioned, but your approach is just not what the person needs and could be causing more stress. It’s usually when you come at it thinking you know what they’re going through that it becomes problematic. Better just to listen and take your cues from them about how to talk about it and whether they want advice. I bit a good friend’s head off earlier this year when I was simply venting after a tough day, and she started coming at me from a totally different angle that felt super confrontational and annoying and not relevant, but she was honestly only trying to help and I was tired and stressed. A lot of times people don’t want advice.

  6. I am sorry that the dialogue with your friend about her illness went wrong. Now it is the elephant in the room: tough.
    Though well intentioned, you didn’t have the right attitude indeed, but it is not your fault : your experience of carer for a lethal cancer victim is terrifying for her. She needs to fight, to summon her energy for the treatment. She needs hope and support. She really doesn’t want to be confronted with a case of fatal outcome that broke your heart.
    Spontaneously, you projected your own experience of cancer on her. But there are multiple forms of cancer and you are no doctor, right? You don’t know what will be the outcome for her. Sure, there are statistics, but there are also individual variations. She doesn’t need you to “inform” her of her survival chances. Not at all. This is a discussion a doctor might have with their patient, and even a doctor won’t address that topic so bluntly if the patient is reluctant, doesn’t ask the question, or is in denial. This is not your field of competence and not your scope of action as a friend. To address a denial is a very delicate matter. Denial is a psychological protection, an unconscious defense for a mind who can’t – just can’t – face reality. This will be a process for her, according to the evolution of her condition.
    You should just be with her, tell her your best wishes for her treatments and recovery, listen to her, ask her what you can do to make it easier or that could please her.
    I have a friend who went through cancer. She has fully recovered. During her treatment, she was very frank about what she needed from her friends. Mainly visits at hospital, presence, attention, support, and also books, movies, easy stuff to provide her with some entertainment after surgery or chemiotherapy. No amateur sinister prognosis. If your friend tells you that she prefers not to address the topic at all, then you can’t.
    An other friend of mine had an other very grave health issue. She told me that what helped her most then was a written card which stated something like: you will fight, you will win.
    Strong positive support.
    Now, I am not sure that it would be a good idea for you to talk of it again with her. But you don’t need to talk of cancer to support her through her ordeal. Don’t ask her about the state of her illness, her prognosis, at all. Perhaps you can simply ask her: « and how are you? », and proceed from there. Just listen, as you don’t know better. You can also ask her if she needs anything, like groceries, or a prepared meal, or if she would be entertained by a book or music, or whatever. Maybe she will have an idea, and you can reconnect like this. Don’t make huge statements of apology if she is not ready to have that conversation in the first place.
    Maybe, if you prefer, write a small card with an apology for your first reaction and tell her again your love and wishes for her treatment and recovery. Let her know that you are ready to give her any practical help she will ask for. And express positivity, hope for her.

    Good luck, I hope you will be able to be the support you would like to be for her. The friendship is still there if she speaks with you.

    1. this is a very insightful comment

  7. Genuine question — how is focusing on “the dark” realistic? I mean, the people who live are just as real as the people who died. Statistics are about chances; chances are purely speculative, not at all REAL.

    People who congratulate themselves on being realistic are often simply pessimistic. No one wants to talk to a pessimist during cancer treatment. LW, if you are digging in about being right when you read this, then there’s your answer. THAT’s why she doesn’t want to talk to you.

  8. anonymousse says:

    I just…wow.

    It is not that hard to understand how your particularly dark outlook is not helpful for her. I mean, really.

    Have you apologized? That might help. But she still might not have the emotional energy to deal with you right now. I’m sorry that’s hard to digest, but she is fighting for her life, and probably doesn’t need any reminders that the outlook is bleak.

    Can you be positive and discuss other things? Is there anything you can do to help her or add some fun to her life? Start small. Reach out, keep it upbeat if you can. If you can’t, then I don’t think you should reach out until you can.

  9. Yes, and don’t apologize by saying, “I’m sorry, but … ”

    “I’m sorry, but I was just being realistic.”
    “I’m sorry, but that’s just how I am.”
    “I’m sorry, but I just went through this with my relative, so…”

    If you’re going to apologize, you have to really BE sorry. Be sorry that your pessimism (oops, I mean “dark” attitude) is a flat-out liability to your friendship. Be sorry that you presumed to know anything about actually having cancer because you went to another person’s doctor appointments.

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