Editor’s Note: After a long and resilient battle with primary peritoneal cancer, Roberta Aberle, 53, of Aurora, CO passed away on November 1, 2017 with her husband David Oine at her side. Even as she battled her own cancer, Roberta was a tireless advocate for patient care, hoping to improve the lives of others also fighting life-threatening illnesses. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.
The descriptions of first hearing “you have cancer,” all follow a common thread – shock, denial, surreal, as are the emotions and reactions to the news – disbelief, despair, fear. However, I suspect few people ask themselves in those initial stages of grasping the news, “I wonder how many people I care about will disappear from my life as I fight cancer?”
But it happens. I hear it over and over, with dizzying similarity. I was one who never even contemplated the idea any of my loved ones would not be there to through my cancer experience. But it happened to me immediately, gradually and then again abruptly, long after I was down the road of treatment.
And I never saw any of it coming.
At first, there were the expected disappearances. Colleagues, neighbors and distant friends, upon hearing the news either would at first react with sympathy, then the avoidance began. A random colleague would pile up his papers and laptop before the meeting ended and be up and out the door with barely a nod to me. I’d be out walking my dogs and see a neighbor coming around the corner – not realizing I’d seen them – turn to walk the other direction. The e-mail update and invitation to follow my fight on MyLifeline.org site went unacknowledged by more than a handful of long term friends. One couple I had introduced to each other and later married, I’ve not seen or heard from during this 5+ year odyssey. Another couple my husband and I went out with rather regularly at first were adamant they would be all over me helping. I heard from them daily the first week, the last call being to find out what type of soup I preferred. The soup never came. Nor did they, ever again.
Both are still receiving my emails and updates, they never come back undeliverable, I see their updates on social media, so I’m confident they are alive and well. For whatever reason, they’ve chosen not to be a part of my path.
At first it hurt terribly, then I did my best to employ all the psychological and human behavior knowledge I’d gleaned throughout my life.. It was easier to understand once I divorced myself from the hurt and focused on what defense mechanisms those absent friends were using.
Most people don’t know what to say or how to say it. So they avoid the topic entirely. And in the case of cancer, where it’s next to impossible to avoid the topic because it can be all consuming; avoidance of me, as well as the topic seemed to be the natural conclusion.
Even with that understanding of the likelihood absence was their defense, it doesn’t change how much I miss them, I miss knowing about their lives. I miss their energy and spirit. I miss their friendship.
There are the people who show up in the grand way which helps you cope with those who can’t show up. The support system that come over, pick up the phone to reach out, send cards, books and other resources. Asking for ways they can offer help. Wow. Mind boggling how some people will come out of the woodwork. And how fortunate we are for those who do.
Then there are the very sad stories of cancer totally wrecking you to your core. Those, for me, were the ones that came quite abruptly later. But in my travels and exposure to cancer patients near and far, I’ve heard about spouses serving divorce papers, children who lash out and misbehave, parents who aren’t present at chemo sessions or surgeries, friends who drop you from social gatherings. The entire gamut. How do you explain these crucial relationships that come crashing down?
Over my 5+ year battle, even a handful of those who stepped up in the most generous and productive ways eventually disappeared too. I barely have had the stamina for this duration of time, how could I ask anyone else to? But there are equally just as many who were there are Day 1 and are still here on what is around Day 1,991. For all of them, I’m eternally grateful. They have carried me through.
But back to those significant relationships that collapse, what logic explains those? Not being an expert in the field of human psychology, I can only comment based on my own personal circumstances
For me, it was two nearly life long friends who left my side with extreme abruptness and even more extreme callousness. Amid harsh words both of them, who did not know each other, accused me of using my cancer as an excuse to be horrible and nasty to people. Furthermore that they only stayed friends with me due to feeling sorry for me having cancer. Wow. One went so far to say how sad it was I needed help with my laundry and who really did I know who would want to launder my dirty underwear? True and unfathomable.
My personal interjection here is: where is the compassion and where is the sensitivity? I have a terminal diagnosis, even if I were a bad person to be around during my cancer, wouldn’t a true friend help you identify and seek out ways to help you cope differently? What motivation and impure intent has to be behind hurtful and hateful words that are spewed knowing the dire circumstances of a person they claim to love and care for? Would you say such things to a person with life threatening heart disease, addiction or diabetes? How does going for the jugular help the person in a medical crisis? How does deserting them help power them through healing to a cure?
Those are the questions to ask yourself when you seek to recover from the abandonment of anyone significant while you are struggling with cancer. What would a reasonable person do in the same situation? How would they help you cope and manage? Would they put hurtful, hateful adjectives around you and blame you for your plight?
Is it possible they had to create conflict with you to push you away because they couldn’t bear to see you suffer? Or because they couldn’t fix it? Or because they were sheerly self-referential, unable to cope with mortality, yours or their own and just wanted to be free of the confines cancer can bring?
In other words, odds are, it’s not you, it IS them. I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell every person who has leaned on my shoulder, who has confided to me in tears about who has left or worse, their words, who has “rejected” them since their diagnosis. Every story of this nature, pierces my heart again as if it were happening to me all over again.
All I can do is suggest that as painful and prickling as it is, hold your head high. You did nothing to deserve being abandoned nor did you cause your own cancer. If a significant person in your life cannot walk through the fiery coals with you and carry you if needed, you do not need them there with you. It is not an easy lesson, and trust me, I replay it over and over as to what I did wrong and should’ve done differently; all the while knowing the outcome would likely be the same. They may have left anyway.
There are thousands of quotes and adages about allowing another person to leave when they want to leave. For whatever reason. The true and pure individuals will return. They may or may not have answers for you as to what or why they were driven to desert you. This would be the happiest conclusion, the true meaning of closure.
The best way to view this situation when and I hope, only IF it happens to you; you sweep all the negativity and the pain of it aside. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in those who can be present, who do show up, otherwise you’d be preoccupied with hurt to invest in the people who can put aside their own needs, who can sacrifice their own potential for hurt and loss to be there without reservation, without stipulations and without complaint.
Then the decision belongs to you, whether you welcome them back into your life or not. I’ve asked myself, if ever had the chance to reconcile with the immediate, the gradual or the abrupt departures could I or would I? It remains to be seen as it hasn’t happened yet. All I can predict is that, for me, and this is only me, it would be hard to edit out this huge segment of my life and resume a friendship the way it was. It doesn’t mean it can’t be a different relationship, but it also doesn’t mean it could never be resurrected. But I don’t have to worry about that right now. If it ever does happen in my lifetime, I will be sure to let you know what I choose to do.
Roberta Aberle is a cancer thriver, despite her 2012 diagnosis with an advanced and aggressive type of cancer. Her cancer; primary peritoneal carcinomatosis, is very rare and lethal, giving her an extremely poor prognosis to live longer than 6 mos. Yet, 5 1/2 years later, she is an active advocate for the cause of cancer as a writer and speaker. Her articles have appeared in Conquer and Coping magazines. Her cancer blog: MyLifeline.org/RobertaAberle and social media site, Live With It on Facebook, in which she shares insights on how life looks from the eyes of cancer, has a following of thousands around the globe. Roberta’s writing appeals to not only those facing cancer or caring for a loved one with cancer; her work contains messages relevant about the need to approach each and every day with appreciation and gratitude whether you live within the fearful confines of cancer or not.