We all need friends. Without them, our lives can seem empty and lonely, and there’s plenty of research that suggests that isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness. Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships. Better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life are just some of the benefits of friendship.
“What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” the title of a New York Times article published in 2009 cited a ten-year study of older people which found those having a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer friends. Strong social ties have been proven to have other benefits too, like promoting brain health as we age. In a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, the women without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends. Another interesting finding was that proximity and amount of contact were less important than simply having friends. Having multiple friendships, as a six year study of 736 Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease than simply having attachment to only a one person. We need our friends, and when we’re in the throes of life’s struggle and hardships or a life-threatening illness like cancer, we need our friends even more. As Stacie Chevrier, writing for Cure Today stated, “What keeps us from drowning in the sea of change are the people in our lives who come to the rescue: our friends and family.”
But you got to have friends.
The feeling’s oh so strong.
You got to have friends
to make that day last long...
(From: “Friends,” Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M, 1972, lyrics by Mark Klingman and Buzzy Linhart)
However, our friends can sometimes disappoint us. If you have been given a cancer diagnosis, you may have experienced the unexpected loss of some people you counted as friends; those who didn’t reach out to you or seemed to disappear from your life. It hurts, and yet, it’s a common experience among many cancer patients, echoed by blogger, Debra Sherman, in the Reuters feature, “Cancer in Context.”
When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” she writes, “it generates conflicted feelings that they want to avoid, so they don’t reach out.” Hearing you have been diagnosed with cancer may ignite fears of illness among some of your friends, even fears of death even death, and the the sense “this could happen to me.” It creates conflicted feelings for some, and ones they try to avoid.
It can feel awkward to others when a friend is first diagnosed with cancer, and something many struggle with, unsure how to respond, asking themselves, “What do I say to my friend?” Fear of saying the wrong, clumsy or trite thing to a friend with cancer is another reason some shy away from face-to-face contact. They may be afraid of upsetting you or disturbing you at a time you won’t feel like talking. Whatever the reason for their withdrawal, it can feel like the bonds of friendship you’ve shared have suddenly and inexplicably been broken, and at a time you need your friends most.
Our lives until so recently
parallel and filled
with common details…
details still in my life
while you lie in an alien bed…
I want to speak; you want to speak
but we’ve lost our common language…
How can I know
how it feels to lose a beast
and fight to save lungs,
bones, and brain
when all I have to battle
is the traffic?
(From: “To a Friend Now Separated From Me by Illness,” by Gretchen Fletcher, in: The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001.)
What can you do if you find your friends behaving differently? Cancer Net offers some advice. You can begin by helping close friends understand your cancer and treatment. Remember though, you are in charge of how much and what you want to tell them. If they don’t bring it up, first decide what you want your friends to know, then, as you feel ready, discuss it with them. For more casual friends, however, it’s probably best to stick to something simple, like, “I have cancer, but I’m getting treatment for it.”
Make new friends,
But keep the old.
One is silver
And the other gold…
(From: “Make New Friends,” www.scoutsongs.com)
Some of your friendships may change, but in many cases, those changes will be positive ones. You may become closer and find it easier to talk about the important things in one another’s life. And you might also find, as so many in my writing groups do, that you make new friends, those who share the cancer journey with you. You can openly share fears, the language, and emotional ups and downs that are unique to the cancer experience. And those bonds that develop between you are often deep and long-lasting.
Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend?” Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971. James Taylor’s recording of it the same year was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.” Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald and others, testimony to the importance of friendship, the enduring and true ones we have in our lives.
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yes I will
Now ain’t it good to know
that you’ve got a friend…
This week, consider the topic of friendship. Write about friends, having and even losing them.
- When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
- Write about a friendship that matters deeply to you. Why?
- Did you lose friends when you were diagnosed with cancer or at another difficult period of your life?
- You might even borrow from Joan Walsh Angland’s little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1960 and begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…” and generate a list of things about the things you consider important in your friendships.
Without a doubt, your friends can make your life a little better. Write about friendship.