Being diagnosed with breast cancer is like being hit by a freight train, and those three words, “You have cancer,” stir up an overwhelming magnitude of emotions, anxieties and questions. We are forced to face our fears and embark on an exhausting journey filled with countless doctor appointments, procedures and imaging, often resulting in stretches where we question our resiliency and ability to make it through treatment. These are the moments where we are left no choice but to dig deep and find our strength, but cancer is not something we should navigate alone. Despite the isolation we may feel, it’s critical to not separate ourselves and call upon those who are nearest and dearest to us – our friends.
Some friends may not know what to say or how to be of support in the face of crisis. Maybe some might even be triggered by their own anxieties, causing them to recede into the background. But other friends unexpectedly rise to the surface or seem to appear out of nowhere. It’s times like these when our true friends shine. Whether they are people we meet along the journey or those we knew prior, these confidants become our lifeline – taking us to appointments, researching doctors and cutting-edge treatments, returning our tears and worries with hugs and words of support, and most importantly, propping us up when we feel lost. These are the people we cherish beyond measure, our breast friends.1
In anticipation of Galentine’s Day, we are celebrating the power of friendship by highlighting two touching stories of companionship. The first is the story of Julian and Michele, childhood friends whose relationship shined like a beacon when Julian was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 25. Best friends for 17 years, they talked on the phone at least eight times a day, watched TV together and always made a point to spend quality time together. And when Jillian’s life was suddenly uprooted by breast cancer, Michele never left Julian’s side. Through chemotherapy, hair loss, radiation and countless other challenges, cancer became not a test of their friendship, but an affirmation of it. Michele showed up in any way Julian needed and in turn, learned what it's like to truly be of support to someone facing illness. In her words, “It is important not to treat them like they are a victim of cancer, because they aren’t. Be their shoulder to cry on, but don’t forget to laugh and enjoy life together. It is key to keep a sense of normalcy during a time that is anything but normal. Tragedy always seems to bring people closer together, but for us, it was really just being the friend that we both knew we always were to each other.” Her endless support helped nurture Julian’s strength to fight cancer and shaped her perception of an illness she had no control over.2
The second story addresses what it’s like when the act of connecting with close friends feels painful or awkward in the face of a diagnosis. In these cases, when something so significant has changed, it can feel impossible to behave or engage the way we did before. Sad as this may sound, this situation can also provide an opportunity to develop new connections with others going through similar or parallel experiences. Such was the case for Dana Stewart who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32 and suffered from extreme feelings of isolation. For her, that loneliness abated only when she discovered the Young Survival Coalition (YSC), a national non-profit offering support and resources for breast cancer women diagnosed before the age of 35. Most women in their 30's don’t know what it’s like to face mortality, have fertility threatened or be blindsided by an illness that threatens to highjack all of our life plans. For Dana, even though she had support from close friends and family, it wasn’t until she met other women from the YSC that she finally felt hope and the freedom to share openly about her deepest concerns and struggles. It was an intimate support that raised her morale, helped her fight and provided many breast friends who remain in her life today.3
Wherever our support network comes from, having besties doesn’t just make us feel better, it actually strengthens our immune system and reduces our risk of cancer. According to a large study published in the Journal of Oncology that examined social ties and survival after breast cancer diagnosis, socially isolated women have a lower chance of survival following a breast cancer diagnosis, likely due to a lack of or reduced contact with friends and relatives. In some cases, close friends proved to be even more beneficial to health than a spouse or religious community.4
Whether we're a patient, survivor or someone who has never experienced illness, we all thrive on the love and intimacy that comes from deep connection and sharing. Our psyches and hearts expand when in the presence of unwavering love, free from judgment and pity. So this Galentine’s Day, join us in taking time to acknowledge the people who fill our lives with love. A simple text, card or phone call is all it takes to remind someone of our gratitude, and sometimes, it makes all the difference in the world.
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light.”— Helen Keller