Going through cancer treatment can be rough, both for your body and your mind. With radiation, chemotherapy, and all uncertainties of your diagnosis, you may need your support network now more than ever before.
Unfortunately, sometimes the most important people in your life can disappear during times of crisis. You might feel shocked and hurt, but if you’ve had family and friends abandon you during cancer treatment, you wouldn’t be alone. It’s something most people don’t expect when they tell their family they have cancer.
In this guide, you’ll learn nine essential tips for dealing with abandonment and how to move forward in spite of it. Just know that no matter who leaves and who sticks around, you can find a way through it.
1. Give Them Space
Not all relationships are meant to last, even when they appear stable and strong. Some people will only be in your life for a season, and your connection will fade eventually. And others will stick with you through the ups and downs regardless of what happens. Going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment can push weaker relationships to a breaking point.
This can be devastating when it’s a best friend, sibling, or parent. In the end, you’d feel like it was someone that would always be there for you. You can’t force them to come back to you. It’s their conflict to process, whether they reconnect with you or not.
At first, it may be hard to tell whether a relationship will survive. When someone walks away, either they’ll reconnect at some point, or they’ll never return. In either case, give your friend or family member some space. Consider a compassionate viewpoint, knowing they may be struggling with the thought of losing you. They may need time apart to process their emotions before reconnecting.
2. Spend Time With the People Who Show Up
When someone close to you vanishes at a critical moment, it can be hard to ignore the void. Their absence can feel like the elephant in the room, so obvious and difficult to accept. It’s easy for feelings of abandonment to take center stage when you’re already dealing with something serious and stressful like cancer. But instead of looking for people who have left, try to refocus your eyes on those who stick around.
Who’s showing up for you, regardless of how close you thought you were? Are you surprised by who you still have by your side? Remember that these people are comfortable enough to stay with you during your toughest moments. Find ways to acknowledge and appreciate their actions and let these relationships get the spotlight.
3. Do Something to Distract Yourself
Feelings of abandonment can be difficult to cope with and accept. But dwelling on those feelings and circumstances won’t make you feel better or change your situation. If you allow your mind to simmer in feelings of loneliness or rejection, your emotions can overwhelm you. This isn’t the same as ignoring your feelings or pretending they don’t exist. You’ll still need to work through them and face reality. But there’s no benefit to drowning in deep sorrow every day.
Instead, keep your mind occupied and distracted. Get back into a hobby you used to do or consider trying a new one. Find some things that always make you smile like music, watching your favorite sports team, or being out in nature. You’ll likely still feel waves of painful emotion, even while trying to do other things. But when you keep yourself occupied, these emotional waves can seem smaller and more manageable.
4. Consider Reaching Out to Make the First Move
Your friend called a few weeks ago and promised to stop by. They haven’t come by and you wonder what happened. Your cousin, who you’ve always been close with, hasn’t contacted you at all since your diagnosis. What do you do when your cancer journey is getting tough and you need someone to lean on?
Take the first step and reach out. Send a quick text or email, or make a phone call. You may not feel well, and you might not have anything specific to say, but that’s OK. Just make a simple gesture to let them know that it’s OK to talk with you. Your good friend and your cousin may want to connect, but feel stuck like a deer in the headlights.
Invite them in a little closer, acknowledge that things are weird and not what you expected. Just that outreach might be enough to start exchanging texts or a phone call once in a while. And even if some people are hesitant, a nudge from you can help them engage.
5. Be Direct: Tell Your Friends and Family What You Need
When a person is uncertain about their next move, they often do nothing. That’s why a lack of action may not always equal a lack of concern. Some people who care about you just need a little direction and they’ll step right up to the plate.
You may also realize that you have to learn how to ask for help. If you’ve been fairly independent, this might be challenging for you at first. Make it easier for yourself and others by creating a to-do list. Have someone help you come up with the essential tasks. Consider setting up a meal train or a sign-up list for helping you with errands and household chores.
6. Understand That it’s Not Really About You
Hearing the phrase, “It’s not you, it’s me,” doesn’t bring much comfort. Some people just walk away without saying anything. If you were such great friends or close family members, why did they leave you when you were diagnosed with cancer? How could they abandon you in your time of need? It may sound like a worn-out excuse, but their vanishing act is very likely about them instead of you.
People who walk away during a crisis often do so because of their own discomfort rather than something about the person needing support. Watching someone fighting for their life can force a person to face their mortality, which can be very uncomfortable. Instead of helping their loved one, it can feel more comfortable to block it all out and disconnect. They may feel frozen, unsure of what to do or say.
People who do this can feel guilty and ashamed, often feeling like they’ve burned a relationship bridge. They knew they turned away during a crisis, and this can be hard for them to face. Abandonment can feel awful, but those who walk away often don’t feel much better.
7. Meet and Connect With Other Cancer Survivors
The cancer survivor community can help you feel a sense of belonging right away. With a shared experience like cancer, you’ll find others who may have gone through the same kind of abandonment during their cancer treatment.
Feeling heard and understood can have an enormous impact on your mindset. You may have difficult experiences with cancer that are hard to explain or understand. This community can help you realize that you aren’t alone with your fears, worries, and questions. Instead of focusing on those who have left you, you can find acceptance and new friendships.
Cancer survivor groups may meet online or in person, and depending on your area, you might find groups focused on particular types of cancer. No matter what form they take, these support groups can give you the connection and bonding you need.
8. Be Compassionate and Loving With Yourself
Getting through cancer is hard enough as it is, so be kind to yourself every day. People who step away when things get tough do so for many reasons, mostly because of their own struggles. It’s easy to get frustrated and discouraged when you feel ghosted by close friends or family members.
When self-doubt and loneliness creep in, promise that you’ll do kind and loving things for yourself. Allow time for good sleep, healthy meals, enjoyable hobbies when you feel up to it, or recalling the good things that happen each day. Sometimes listening to uplifting podcasts, TED talks, or audiobooks can help. Even if you stand alone while taking care of your cancer, be the kindest person you spend time with.
9. Know When to Let Go of a Relationship
Sometimes the strain of cancer can break the connection between two people for good. When this happens, it may be time to let go. Doing this can be painful, leaving you feeling empty and abandoned. But acknowledging your loss can help you come to terms with reality.
You may still care about the other person, but you may find it less stressful to stop expecting them to do something. It takes two to tango in a caring relationship, and when one steps away, the dance is over. Self-compassion can help you accept that you’ll be OK even though they don’t want to participate anymore.
Relationship Changes and Cancer: Learning to Cope
When you got your cancer diagnosis, you may have imagined that your friends and family would stay close during your treatment. But the truth is that some people run away when a crisis hits.
Their absence can be shocking and heartbreaking. In the end, you’ll also find people who stick with you through the ups and downs. No matter who comes and goes in your life, you don’t have to go through cancer alone.
If you're looking for more ways to cope with cancer, read our guides on books about cancer and what you can do on your cancerversary.
- “Cancer survivors: Reconnecting with Loved Ones After Treatment.” Mayo Clinic, 3 November 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/in-depth/cancer-survivor/art-20045378
- “Dealing with Cancer and Disappearing Friends.” UVA Health, 1 October 2019, blog.uvahealth.com/2019/10/01/dealing-with-cancer-and-disappearing-friends/