- Some friends will deal well with your illness and provide
- Some will be unable to cope with the possibility of death and
will disappear from your life.
- Most will want to help but may be uncomfortable and unsure of
how to go about it. Help your friends support you:
- Ask yourself, "Have friends deserted me or have I withdrawn
- Telephone those who don't call you.
- Ask for simple assistance-to run an errand, prepare a meal, or
visit. These small acts bring friends back into contact and help
them feel useful and needed.
- If you are alone, ask your physician, social worker or pastor
to "match" you with another patient. Someone else needs
- Groups of other cancer patients can offer new friendships,
understanding, support, and companionship.
- When you return to work, coworkers, like others, may shun you,
support you or wait for your cues on how to respond.
- There are laws to protect you against job discrimination.
Anyone who has been affected intimately by cancer knows that it
can change the pattern of our relationships outside the family as
well as those within. Friends react as they do to other difficult
situations. Some handle it well; others are unable to maintain any
association at all. Casual acquaintances, and even strangers, can
cause unintended pain by asking thoughtless questions about visible
scars, artificial devices, or other noticeable changes in
One or two people within your circle may be gratifying in their
devotion and in the sensitivity they show toward your needs. One
woman said her mother-in law found one or two close friends with
whom she felt truly relaxed. They were not startled when she
laughed nor ill at ease when she cried. With others she maintained
an outward calm.
"I have three really good friends with whom I can talk about my
cancer," explained another. "I have talked about dying with my
sister, and she does understand a lot more than I thought a person
without cancer could."
Lost friendships are one of the real heartbreaks people with
cancer face. Friends do not call for a variety of reasons. They
might not know how to respond to a change in your appearance. They
might be avoiding you in order to avoid facing the possibility of
your death and the eventuality of their own. Their absence does not
necessarily mean they no longer care about you. Still, it is little
comfort to know that "out there" you have friends if they have so
little confidence in their worth as companions that they would
rather say nothing than risk saying the wrong thing.
"I see that my friends don't know how to talk to me, and they
shy away from me," wrote one person with cancer. "Most people are
very ignorant on the subject of cancer."
If you believe discomfort rather than fear is keeping a
particular friend from visiting, you might try a phone call to
dissolve the barrier. Yet you cannot combat all the reasons why
people avoid you; some still believe that cancer is contagious.
Certainly, you cannot call them up and say, "Hey, get out of the
Dark Ages. It's not catching!"
Knowing that others are ignorant does little to lessen the hurt
and frustration of being needlessly isolated. You only can change
the attitudes of others if you are among them. Examine carefully
whether friends shun you or whether you have withdrawn from your
usual social contacts to protect your own feelings. You can neither
enlighten nor draw comfort from an empty room. If possible, the
best place to be is out in the world with other people.
Most people fall into a middle group, somewhere between the
staunch friends and the "avoiders." They are groping for an
approach to cancer with which they can be comfortable. These people
may say things which sound inane, insincere, or hurtful. You have
to keep reminding yourself that they are trying their best. If you
are open about cancer, they may relax, too.
A perceptive high school student explained, "I guess what I'm
trying to say boils down to this. One of these days people may not
feel so uneasy around a disabled person. I'm not bitter with
people; I'm really quite at ease with them and strive to make them
feel at ease with me. They feel afraid of me, and consequently trip
over their tongues. I have learned a lot by living in a disabled
person's world and am quite willing to share it. One of these days,
I may be given the chance."
A woman who had had extensive surgery for oral cancer explained
how she tried to lessen the discomfort of others without causing
discomfort for herself. She focused on her disability rather than
"I am determined to put people at ease, so when I speak on the
telephone, or to someone for the first time, I immediately say, 'I
have a speech defect, so please don't hesitate to tell me if you
don't understand me.' I also carry a pencil and paper and offer to
write what can't be understood. I find it much more frustrating to
have people try to save my feelings by pretending to understand me
when they don't."
A man we know startled his fishing buddies, who were paying a
group visit to his hospital room. He positively threw open the door
to honest communication when he boomed out, "You know, I've learned
one hell of a lot about cancer since I became a member of the
We can't all be that direct. He had been a straight forward man
all his life. But he had let his friends know that he preferred
talking about his cancer to pussyfooting around it.
Many times friends are waiting for some clue as to what
behavior is appropriate. They might not be sure you want company.
They might call to "see how things are going," then add as they
hang up the phone, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to
These friends are asking for more than a job to do. They are
asking for direction, giving you clues that they will not desert
you if only they have some guidance on how to proceed. The next
time friends or relatives offer assistance, try to look at the
offer in that light. If you can think of one specific errand they
can run, one chore they can take off your hands, you have done them
and yourself a favor.
"Mother hasn't been out since Dad became ill. I think a
Saturday afternoon at the shopping center would do wonders for
"We'll be at the hospital all day Thursday for chemotherapy. It
would be such a help to me if you could whip up a casserole for our
"I don't feel much like talking these days, but if you'd bring
your needlepoint and come sit with me, it would be pleasant to have
Most people are grateful if there is something concrete they
can do to show their continuing friendship. If such tasks bring
them into your home, it gives them a chance to see that you are
still living and functioning- not a funeral waiting to happen.
Their next visit might be easier, and then they may be able to stop
by without a "reason."
Choosing to help friends in this way is no easy undertaking.
When you feel stretched to breaking just keeping your own life
going, it is difficult to extend your energies further to make
others feel at ease. It can be a new and difficult experience for
some, this reaching out, but the rewards can be exhilarating. We
all feel better giving than receiving, so it might be easier if you
think of your requests for assistance as letting others feel
useful, rather than as petitions for help.
Regardless of what you do, your friends might desert you.
Circumstances might have left you alone before cancer struck. This
is a special, awful loneliness for any human being to endure. There
are no easy answers, no pat solutions. The mutual support of other
people with cancer might provide some solace and comfort. There
probably are others in your community who need your companionship
as much as you need theirs. Being housebound need not deprive you
of visits from others who would like to share some quiet moments or
some deeply felt sorrow with someone who will understand. A
physician, social worker, visiting nurse, or member of the clergy
should be able to help you contact another cancer patient or
shut-in who could use company.
For many of us, work forms a cornerstone of life. In addition
to income, it provides satisfaction and a chance to interact with
peers. Returning to work as soon as you are physically able is one
way to return stability to your life. If treatment has made it
impossible to return to a former line of work, investigate the
availability of rehabilitation and retraining programs within the
community to prepare you for another occupation.
You might find on returning to your job that relationships with
coworkers have changed. One person with cancer found his associates
had requested separate restroom facilities for him-that old "cancer
is catching" myth again!
"If we pretend Jane never had cancer, it will go away" is the
approach of many coworkers toward cancer patients when they return
to work. This can be demoralizing. Some have found that if you look
well and are able to function, people tend to underestimate the
seriousness of your condition. They might mumble something like,
"Glad you're back; you look great," and never ask how you really
feel. In turn, you might find you resent their good health and
nonchalance as you wonder what happened to the companionship you
had looked forward to in returning to work.
The best you can do is assume that your coworkers, like so many
others, are unsure of what to say or are trying to protect your
feelings-or their own.
Others returning to work might be perfectly delighted with a
rather cavalier attitude toward their condition. "Glad you're
back," might be all you want to hear before plunging into your old
routine. If you are being coddled at home, returning to a situation
where others do not think of you as sick might be the greatest
therapy yet devised.
Some people believe it eases relationships with coworkers if
they are quite open about their condition. One young woman
described in a speech to other cancer patients why she decided to
tell about the cancer.
"Since my bones don't cooperate, it's hard for me to appear
graceful, but I have a choice in this situation," she said. "I can
either move as though nothing is bothering me (while gritting my
teeth and giving my contact lenses a salty bath), or I can move
awkwardly in reasonable comfort. I think this is one of the reasons
I don't mind people knowing I have multiple myeloma. I keep having
this flash of having died and having someone who just found out
about the myeloma saying, 'So that's why she kept falling
If cancer treatment meant leaving your old job, discrimination
may be a hurdle to returning to work. Even the person who is
completely recovered may find it difficult to obtain employment.
The rationale, one hears from indirect sources, is that people who
have had cancer take too many sick days, are a poor insurance risk
or will make coworkers uncomfortable.
How can you cope? You might begin with this information: Under
Federal law (the
Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
), most employers
cannot discriminate against handicapped workers, including people
with cancer. These laws apply to Federal employers, employers that
receive Federal funds, and private companies with 25 or more
employees (15 or more employees after mid-1994). The laws protect
cancer patients in hiring practices, promotions, transfers, and
layoffs. Every state also forbids discrimination based on handicap;
however, only some of these state laws protect all people with
If you apply for a job with a government agency or a firm with
government contracts and believe you did not get the job because of
your cancer. you can file a complaint under Section 504 of the
Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973
. You should write
directly to the Federal agency involved. If you do not know the
name of the agency that provides Federal funds to the employer,
contact the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of
Justice, Washington, D.C., (202) 724-2235.
If you believe you were discriminated against by a private
employer because of your cancer, you should file your complaint
with the closest regional office of the Equal Employment
Opportunities Commission. To obtain the location of your regional
EEOC office and find out exactly what to do, call the EEOC Public
Information System at (800 USA-EEOC).
To find out more about your legal rights, check with:
- Your local American Cancer Society. Offices have state-specific
information about cancer and employment discrimination.
- Your social worker. He or she may know about laws in your state
and can also tell you which state agency is in charge of protecting
- Your state's Department of Labor or Office of Civil
- The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. This
organization offers information and limited attorney
- Regional or national offices of the American Civil Liberties
- Your representative or senator. Congressional and senate
offices have information about Federal and state laws. If you're
not sure who represents your district, call your local library or
local chapter of the League of Women Voters.