Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times. As Sharon puts it, “Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.” Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.
by Sharon Bray, Ed.D
“Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times. They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionship.” (The Mayo Clinic)
Friends. It’s a topic that comes up often in my cancer writing groups, having them and, during cancer, losing some. It’s an experience everyone shares during difficult times, when we discover what separates lasting friendships from our other, more transitory ones. True friendships endure, in part, due to a sense of shared history, stories, laughter and even tears. They remind us of who we were and who we have become. In times of upheaval, change and our difficult life chapters, they provide the continuity we find so important. Yet, as we can sometimes discover, sometimes the people we’ve counted as friends aren’t there for us when our lives are turned upside down.
A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare
Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been defined by several major moves. This past summer my husband and I relocated again, returning to Toronto, where we met and married nearly 30 years ago. I’ve sometimes complained about the many times we’ve changed addresses, but I’ve been fortunate to have many enduring friendships with people scattered around the world, friends who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult times in my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.
We all need friends. Without them, not only can our lives seem lonely, but there’s plenty of research to suggest that isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness. “In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” Professor Rebecca G. Adams stated in a 2009 New York Times article, “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” by Tara Parker-Pope. Adams teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage,” she said, “but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”
What are some of the benefits of friendship? Parker-Pope explored this question in her article and found they include better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life. She cited a number of studies exploring the impact of friendship on health and longevity. For example, one ten-year study of older adults found those with a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer. Researchers also discovered strong social ties have additional benefits, like promoting brain health as we age. Having multiple friendships, as a six year study of Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease more than simply having attachment to only one person. And in a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, those without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.
For those of us whose friends are scattered over the continent and around the world, the researchers also found that proximity and amount of contact are less important than simply having friends. “What keeps us from drowning in the sea of change,” columnist Stacie Chevrier wrote in a 2016 CURE TODAY post, “are the people in our lives who come to the rescue: our friends and family.” We need our friends, and when we’re in the throes of life struggles, hardships or a life-threatening illness like cancer, we need them even more.
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)
Yet sometimes friends can disappoint us. When you find yourself in the midst of a cancer diagnosis, some friends may not reach out to you as you thought they might; others unexpectedly drop away. Chevrier commented on her experience of losing friends during her cancer. “Cancer is so awkward. I’ve come to realize talking about cancer can make people very uncomfortable. However, I’ve also come to realize that the silence was not about me, but about their discomfort.”
It hurts to have friends unexpectedly disappear, and yet, it’s more common among many cancer patients than you might think. Debra Sherman, a “Cancer in Context” blogger, commented on this experience in 2014. “When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” she wrote, “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, and the sense “this could happen to me.”
It can feel awkward to one’s friends when you are first diagnosed with cancer. It’s something more than a few struggle with, uncertain how to respond, asking, “What do I say to my friend?” Fear of saying a wrong, clumsy or trite thing to a friend with cancer can make some shy away from face-to-face contact. They may be afraid of upsetting you or feel as if they can’t respond in any meaningful way. It’s an experience Gretchen Fletcher describes in her poem, “To a Friend Now Separated From Me by Illness.”
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 breast
and fight to save lungs,
bones, and brain
when all I have to battle
is the traffic?
(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001.)
Whatever the reason for a friend’s withdrawal, it’s difficult to experience at a time you need friends the most. Is there anything you can you do if you find your friends behaving differently? Cancer Net offers some advice. You can help your 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. “Ain’t it good to know/that you’ve got a friend?”
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…
· Write about friend and the role they have played in your illness.
· When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
· Write about a friendship that matters deeply to you. Why?
· Have you lost friends when you were diagnosed with cancer or 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.
Let us hear from you! CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon. Send them to Karen Irwin. 500 word limit.
Sharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site, www.writingthroughcancer.com, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.