A man, Jerry P., wrote in one of the PC forums how, after he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer, some of his friends suddenly vanished.  This is a common complaint.  So I wrote Jerry a letter I want to share with you.  And it would nice to hear of your experiences. 

Sometimes friends and acquaintances do make themselves scarce after a cancer diagnosis. But I’ve also heard of many cases in which women who were dating men who developed PC stayed by the man’s side the whole time. And some relationships, whether friendships or marriages, have been enhanced by cancer.

In some cases it’s the *patient* who pushes people away — and adds to the stigma the disease.  I am experiencing this now with my sister and brother-in-law.   Details to follow.

We are fortunate in that that we did not experience rejection from friends and acquaintances after my husband’s PC diagnosis became known, although some people, like my family, were obviously very ill at ease discussing cancer.  As soon as I would mention it, my sister would say, “Oh, I have to go, the kettle is boiling…”

In my letter to Jerry I tried to focus on the positive, even transformative events in my life that were brought about by illness in the family.  First on the list would be the kindness of strangers, which made me appreciate the goodness and potential of  all people.  Forgot about what Freud said — that all we live for is sex and aggression.  Now scientists have discoverwd that we are “wired” for altruism.  In any case, when you are feeling low, try to think back and make a list of people you didn’t know too well who reached out to you.  That always cheers me up.

Finally, you have to be charitable in interpreting other people’s behavior.  And to not be the pot calling the kettle black, reflect closely on your own.

Here’s the letter I wrote to Jerry. It was quite long so I decided to break it up into three topics: 1) “Friends Who Flee”, 2) “When It’s the Patient Who Pushes People Away”, and 3) “The Kindness of Strangers”.


Dear Jerry, 

This is such a complicated topic. Unfortunately, there is no etiquette guide on how to treat people with cancer (seriously, someone should write one), and lot of folks just don’t know how to react. I hear complaints from men, for example, about their adult children not showing enough interest. I mean what should the kids ask, “How’s your continence, Dad?”

Can you remember a time when you yourself were cancer-phobic? I can. But a couple of years ago I accompanied a friend who had colon cancer to chemo treatments, and I had no problem with it at all. But I must tell you that this woman continued to look healthy and robust to the very end. She was plump and had a lush head of hair. I didn’t understand why she hadn’t suffered the usual effects of chemo, but I couldn’t exactly ask. I must tell you though, that had she looked much more ill, it might have been harder to take and I might have fled, too.  Also, my friend told me the docs gave her marijuana pills for nausea, and sometimes she seemed more giddy than downbeat.

One last thing.  We should all try to be charitable when interpreting other’s behavior.  Sometimes we think we understand their motives but we really don’t.  For example: my friend Curtis, a PC “veteran” who helped me most when I needed emotional support, corresponds with a lot of brothers who are ill. Once he told me that sometimes, when a guy takes a turn for the worse, people distance themselves and stop writing. I know this because it happened to a friend of mine. But Curtis explained that the people who withdraw in “dire” circumstances are not evil, they are simply trying to protect themselves from the pain of a loss. I know what that feels like and have sometimes wished I hadn’t let myself get so close to somebody I met in a PC forum.

We all need to cut each other a lot of slack.