A lesson about true friends for those facing serious illnesses

by Danielle Leach, MPA

“A true friend walks in when everyone else walks out.”

I read that on a magnet on my friend’s refrigerator recently and the simple power of that saying brought me to tears. I have learned that lesson of true friends since my son’s diagnosis of cancer in 2007.

Anyone who has faced a serious illness as a patient or a caregiver knows that you quickly learn who your friends are. They are the ones who are there, who listen instead of trying to fix things, who are present for you in any way you need them. Some people you love will disappoint and not rise to the occasion, and some people you never expected will be your biggest supporters.

It is hard not to resent people who are there in the crisis, and then leave once the immediate crisis is over. There are people who are not there for the long haul, for the good and the bad that a disease may bring. The initial drama draws everyone in, but sends them running afterward.

I have learned, especially when you are living a nightmare, that it takes a special person to stay with you throughout the crisis. A person who keeps checking in and knows the journey is not necessarily over once you are in remission, or when your loved one has passed away. When my son Mason had brain cancer, our family found our true friends. We were surprised by many who walked out, but also by how many true friends walked into our lives because of Mason’s illness. We have learned even after Mason’s death, even three years later, we continue to go through this process of discovering our true friends.

Some people are not capable of handling personal difficulties. We, as patients and caregivers, need to understand not everyone has the capacity or tools to handle a crisis of another. This knowledge does not make it any easier for us as we wade through process of dealing with disease.  As a director at Inspire, a company that creates and manages online patient support communities, I see regularly the comments of patients and caregivers who talk about friendships won and lost since diagnosis. Some are surprised and profoundly saddened by the lack of support from those expected to help the most. However, many happily note those friends, family, and even strangers who surprise them with support in a time of great need.

I recall reading about a Florida woman, whose teenage son was undergoing chemo, wrote that her friends avoided her upon learning about her son’s cancer diagnosis. “It’s almost like they were afraid they could catch it,” she said.

Another, a bladder cancer survivor from New Jersey, observed, “A lot of people walk out. . . a good 50% of my ‘pre-cancer’ friends I have never heard from again.” He went on to say, “In my case, I am lucky. I have all strong ones, having cut weak relations a long time ago. I keep only the cream of the crop.”

Sometimes finding others who are dealing with the same issues can be the most helpful strategy. You can often talk online more frankly and honestly with them than with some loved ones or friends. Dealing with an illness can be a lonely and scary process. Participating in support communities often help alleviate some of that loneliness. I have seen repeatedly how these connections are a powerful tool and establish strong personal friendships among members.

If you’re a patient or caregiver, look for the people who are true friends and hold those people close. Craft a strong support network–both in person and online. If you have a chance to do so, be the kind of true friend people are often searching for in their lives when they need it the most.

Danielle Leach is Director of Partnerships at Inspire and is founder of the Mason Leach Superstar Fund, in memory of her son, Mason, who died of pediatric medulloblastoma in 2007.

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