Here’s the thing. You never think you’ll have cancer or some other life-altering illness. You think that only happens to other people or is something you read about in books. But if it does happen to you, you’re sure your friends will be there for you. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 24, my entire world was turned upside down but I thought there were a few things I could still count on, including my friends. I thought they would come to the hospital and send care packages and text me to make sure I’m okay.
And some of them did. But some of them didn’t. I’m still not sure why people I had been friends with for over 10 years disappeared when I got cancer. I’m still not sure why they didn’t call or come by the hospital. I’m still not sure why they thought a text a month later was sufficient. And I’m still heartbroken over it. I was always someone who prided myself on my friendships. I had strong, lasting friendships that had stretched from middle school to college. I had loyal, caring, make-it-through-anything friends. Or so I thought.
I’m still trying to work it out. My mom, the optimist that she is, thinks my friends didn’t know how to handle me being sick. And I understand that, I really do. But the thing is I didn’t know how to handle being sick either but I didn’t have a choice. And if you love someone, you need to figure out a way to handle the messy, awful parts of life. You do something. Anything. You do something misguided or awkward or excessive. You do anything that isn’t nothing.
Besides the shock of my diagnosis, this is the thing I was most shocked by. I thought that my best friends of 10 years would sit by my hospital bed as I recovered. I thought that my friends of 5 years who lived across the country would send a card or call or send flowers. I thought that my college friends would drive 15 minutes down the road to hang out with me while I waited to heal. I thought that the people I loved and cared about and had seen through the messy parts of their lives would be there for me. But the sad truth is that many of them weren’t.
So here’s a huge thank you to the people who were. To my mother, who fought for me when I couldn’t fight for myself and spent many fitful nights sleeping by my hospital bed. To my father, who insisted that cancer was a small blip on the radar of my life and in that insistence, convinced me, too. To my siblings, who refused to let me wallow in self-pity and joked about it and boarded planes and jumped in cars to stand by my side. To my boyfriend, who had only been my boyfriend for a year when I was diagnosed, who bought me a plant that symbolizes new beginnings and promised mine was coming, who never wavered even for a moment, even when I begged him to let me break up with him so he could enjoy 20s without a sick girlfriend weighing him down. To my boyfriend’s family, who checked in with me and supported me and never let us feel alone. To the friend who sent a gold bracelet with a pendant of hope. To the friend who sent adult coloring books and a massive bag of Reese’s with a card signed by his whole family. To the friend who sent a bouquet of flowers from her family and then another bouquet when her mom wasn’t pleased with the first one. To the friend who sat at the entrance to my bedroom when I was undergoing radiation and kept me company from there. I love you. All the thanks in the world are not enough.
And to those who weren’t there, who left when I needed support the most, who turned their heads away from my illness and continued on through their own shining, unscathed youth: I won’t ever love you the same way I did before. I know things weren’t the same after I got sick. I had to leave my job and retreat to my parents’ house. My life shrunk to the size of my bedroom, where I watched thousands of hours of Netflix and waited to get better. I couldn’t go out anymore and you stopped asking. You didn’t text me because what was there to talk about? Your life was barreling forward with jobs and school and developments just as mine halted. I was sore from surgery and stained from the painkillers administered in the weeks afterward and I was tired. I was so tired. I wasn’t fun anymore and I know that. But how could I be? What did you expect from me? I know I wasn’t the girl you first became friends with but what are friends for, if not holding your hand during the worst times in your life and cheering you on through the best? We had a blast together during the best times. But where were you during the worst?
Some of my old friends have apologized and I’m trying to forgive them. I’m still friends with most of them but it’s different now. Before, I was so sure in my friendships. I felt so fortunate to have a group of people around me who loved me and laughed with me and supported me. I was always that girl. You know her. That girl with a group of friends she’s known forever. That girl with the friends who have made it through so many different stages of life together. That girl who knew that, if she stumbled, her friends would be the first ones to pick her back up again.
That’s not how it turned out. It turned out that sometimes even the people you love the most leave you during the worst times. It turned out that even your friends can break your heart. It turned out that everyone was right – when the worst happens, you find out what kind of people you’re surrounded by.
I’m moving forward now. The cancer is behind me (hopefully forever) and the people I want standing next to me are the ones who never left.