Some friends disappear when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, others step up

15 Mar 2023

By Luan Lawrenson-Woods.

A breast cancer diagnosis is one of those times in life when you look to your friends and family for support. Sadly, not all friends step up. ‘Cancer ghosting’ is something that many people experience, when close friends disappear from their life after diagnosis. But it’s also a time when friendships strengthen.

Gillian* was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021 in between COVID waves. Gillian went to her first chemotherapy with her mum and partner. When her state went into lockdown she had to go alone. On the advice of her oncologist, neither Gillian or her partner left their home during her treatment and physically isolated from friends and family. “But my mum took me to chemo every week. That was one thing that she could do for me,” she says. “And my partner was amazing!”

Following chemotherapy, Gillian had a lumpectomy and genetic testing. She was surprised to find out that, despite having no family history, she was a carrier of the BRCA2 genetic variant. “My family were really supportive. Obviously, they were all dealing with their own emotional side of it and really worried about me. But they really stepped up emotionally and wished that they could be there more for me.” Gillian’s friends also wanted to do what they could to support her within the restrictions of lockdown.

A group of her close friends were virtually ‘with’ her right from diagnosis when she messaged their group chat from the cancer centre. Gillian shared her diagnosis with her wider circle of friends in a Facebook post with a photo of her in the chemo chair. “The response was overwhelming. It was my most liked post. I’ve never been so popular!’, she laughs. People from primary school, who Gillian hadn’t spoken to for many years, messaged her too.

Gillian was the first in her friendship circle to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with her family, they created a digital support space for her in group chats, and regularly DM’d, called or texted to see how she was going. They made music playlists, sent flowers, and picked up food shopping. Her work colleagues put together a care package. They weren’t sure what to include and asked someone who’d had breast cancer what would be useful. “It was things that were so relevant to what I was going through. I was just crying when it arrived. It made me feel really good.”

The online cancer community on Facebook and Instagram was also a huge support, especially when it came to talking about the negative side of treatment. “I read posts on Instagram and blogs about people’s experiences. They were an antidote to toxic positivity. The social media memes from the cancer community were so helpful and I shared those to kind of tell everyone how it feels.”

Gillian recognises that it’s hard to know how to support a friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer, but she was upset and confused when a high-school friend ‘ghosted’ her. “She was a very close friend of mine. When I was diagnosed, she was there for me, but then there was a gradual distancing.” This was during lockdown, which Gillian acknowledges was difficult for many people who struggled with their mental health. Her friend went offline, and they weren’t in touch as often. When lockdown ended, they met up once, but the friendship wasn’t the same. This became even more apparent when Gillian had risk-reduction surgery.

Gillian had a double mastectomy with an immediate DIEP flap reconstruction when tissue was taken from her abdomen and used to reconstruct her breasts. It’s complex micro-surgery that involves a hip-to-hip incision as well as the incisions to the breasts. The night before her operation, Gillian messaged her friend from her hospital bed. “I told her that I had my big surgery tomorrow and that I was really nervous and freaking out a bit. She was quite dismissive, which really upset me. I tried to call her, but she said, ‘I can’t talk to you, I’m busy’. I was so upset because I was going into a 10-hour surgery the next day. I went into surgery in a real state of anxiety about that friendship”.

“While I was still in hospital, I noticed that she had blocked me on Facebook and Instagram and that she’d blocked my partner as well.”

Gillian messaged her friend a week later to let her know surgery had gone well. “I had no response. And that’s just it. Nothing since then. It was really puzzling because there was no conversation. There was no ‘I’m sorry, it’s too much for me’. Because I understand that maybe it was too much for her.”

“It was hard because I was recovering and ruminating about it. I don’t know what happened. I felt like I wasn’t asking a lot of her. I just wanted to have a conversation. Maybe she was going through something and couldn’t tell me but it’s hard to know because she decided to just cut contact off.” That was over a year ago and Gillian hasn’t heard from her friend since. “I’m keeping an open door. If she wants to talk, I wouldn’t reject her. I understand that cancer is a big thing and it’s quite an emotional thing for people and they don’t know how to deal with it.”

Friendship and support are common themes on the podcast Cancer Culture, hosted by Jacqui Cowan, that aims to unpack the mental aspects of cancer. Jacqui was 17 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma 10 years ago. She had 33 rounds of chemotherapy over 18 months followed by a stem cell transplant.

Cancer Culture captures the truths, stories and emotions of people affected by cancer. “A big part of my podcast is focusing on what people can do to help people with cancer, because being present and showing up is really important. You can go above and beyond in terms of physically rocking up with gifts and that kind of stuff, or just making that person aware that you’re there and not being a stranger. Like sending texts or memes that can help distract from what’s happening. Because friends not only bring love and joy, they can help provide normality and get you out of weird headspaces.” Many of Jacqui’s guests re-establish friendships with old acquaintances. “New relationships are birthed, and they are beautiful.”

For Gillian, while she’s lost one of her closest friends, she’s become closer to those who stuck by her, and her friendship circle has strengthened. “Although they’re your best friend and you expect that they would be there for you, people grow apart. But it was so abrupt. I was really lucky that I had so many other friends that stepped up. You really know who your true friends are because they were just consistently there for me. It was amazing.”

Read our article ‘The importance of a circle of support when diagnosed with cancer’. It includes tips on how friends and family can support someone going through treatment.

Don’t be alone. Pink Hope has closed support groups you can join and also host in-person events where the community comes together to share stories and friendship.

*Not her real name. Gillian wanted to openly share her story so that others can understand how important friendship is when you have a cancer diagnosis but didn’t want to blame-shame her friend, so this article is anonymous.

This content is brought to you in partnership with Eli Lilly Australia and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope.