How I Dealt With The Diagnosis Of My Best Friend

**This post was originally written in 2012. It has been expanded and updated as necessary.** 

Super Survivor Know-It-All aka Been There Done That, This Will Be Easy!

I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2008. My best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a survivor, I felt that I had an inside track to understanding what it meant to go through breast cancer treatment with someone. I mean, who is closer to you than you? No one, that's for sure. I assumed that my experience with breast cancer and the treatment... along with all of the reading and research that I've done over the past few years prepared me and strengthened me and made me strong enough to withstand the tsunami of emotions that come along with the words "...has breast cancer".

And yet, when I found out that one of my dearest friends was waiting for results from a biopsy during the Christmas holidays... I was rendered numb. I literally felt nothing. For me, that is wholly strange because I shed a tear and feel a twinge when someone tells me that someone they know and care about has the disease. Whether I know this person or not. I shed a tear every time. And as often as someone shares that message with me... it has added up to a lot of tears over time. But, I felt nothing when I heard that she was waiting for biopsy results to determine whether she had breast cancer. That worried me.

Everything went silent inside of me. 

I didn't know what to feel. I didn't know what to say. Everything I had said to other people didn't really apply because this was MY friend. Not a stranger that I was comforting. Not even myself that I had to give a pep talk to. This was a woman I had been friends with for over 15 years. Someone I never had to lie to, who never had to lie to me... and here I was... numb and dumbstruck. Until I was laying on her couch on New Year's day... hungover and headachy and she told me that while I was napping off the champagne the doctor had called to confirm the results.

At that moment... I lost every possible cool point I may have ever had in my entire life. I didn't rush to hug her, I didn't have the right words of compassion and encouragement. No. I was that loser chick who screamed out... "BUT I DON'T WANT THIS FOR YOU!!" Which meant that she ended up consoling me for a moment.

*hangs head in shame*

In the one moment in our friendship where I could have repaid her for all the times she's taken care of me, loved me, chastised me (because sometimes I need to be scolded)... I could only wail to God that it just wasn't fair. In her face. Not even in private, like the bathroom, so she didn't have to witness my breakdown.

Please don't be a friend like me. Don't be the friend who makes the person with the diagnosis have to stop her own grieving to console you. That's selfish AF and it's just not cool. This is her moment. Her time to BE consoled. Be a much better friend than I was. I beg you.

After the shock wore off... I got my head out of my ass and opened up to her

Over the weeks since her news, I have cried about her diagnosis and mine. And once I found my words... I have been honest with her in a way that I  haven't been honest with anyone since I was diagnosed. I have been honest about navigating the emotional landmines. I've been harsh. Not harsh towards her, but harshly honest about how I dealt with (and still deal with) this stupid disease. I haven't spoken to her a lot. I didn't want to become that sort of pesky, well-intentioned friend who searched for every little thing that might show how she was feeling in any particular moment.  Because I know that her feelings would change from moment to moment and sometimes... sometimes it's just too much to have someone repeatedly ask you... "how are you really feeling?" even when you know they mean well.

I don't ever want her to feel like she needs to console me or comfort me during this time. That's no longer her role. It is now mine.

This switching of places is unusual for us. I'm more of the cry-baby, tender-hearted one. The one who needs constant assurances. She is usually the strong one who always has a plan of action, a name, a number... a thought and a giggle. Something that moves me from inaction (which I often find myself paralyzed in) towards action. And now, I have to switch places and give her the words, the comfort, the truth that she needs. Doing that is not hard. But it isn't something that I ever wanted to do.

The truth is basic: Nobody wants somebody they love to go through breast cancer. Especially if they've been through it themselves. This shit is hard. You want people you love to be spared this type of hardship. But you can't protect them from it. You can only help them through it. Be there for them in the ways that they need.

My truth: As open as I seemed to be during my treatment process, I really wasn't. 

See, one of the things that I grew to accept as a comfort in this process was learning to tell some but not all of what I was feeling, what I knew and what I feared. I figured out early on that people do not want to know... really know... the tornado of emotions that you feel during this time. They want to know some of it, that's true. I couldn't get away with saying "I'm fine" for too long to my friends. So, I learned to parcel out how much of "I'm fine" to hand out. Too much and people believe that you're lying. Too little and they get lost in their own personal nightmare of "oh my gawd, how does she handle it and what if that happens to me"... fair assessments on both ends.

Truth between survivors is raw.  

But between survivors -- and now my dear friend is also my pink ribbon sister -- there is an unspoken code of brutal honesty that we share. We don't lie to each other about how we feel or what we worry about because we don't have to. We know what it all means and how it changes us. We know how it colors our world differently and makes everything topsy-turvy for a time. So, that raw and brutal honesty... we tend to save and share with each other.

Between survivors, there is a space that goes unsaid. That space says "life is far too short for the bullshit so give it to me real and don't spare my feelings." Nobody who has been diagnosed with breast cancer goes back to their naivety about how fleeting life is and how quickly things can change. It's why we get that steel in our back and face the world head-on, ready to snatch and grab and go for any and everything we want.  The illusion of time is gone. You seek the joy in all things small and minor that will keep you going until the next moment... because it's what keeps you going until the next moment. No more waiting for the "next big thing" because it might not happy. Being happy now is all that is possible. Now. Not later. Not next year. Right now. Be happy and find joy in this actual moment.

And tell the raw, honest truth. Nobody has time for lies. They waste time because the truth will come out and whatever emotions you were trying to protect are still going to be exposed. So deal with the truth now and respect your time and the people in your life.

two breast cancer survivors, african-american women, bald-heads, short hair, natural hair |
Yes, we are real people. Friends.... no scratch that.. sisters. 

How to move forward and be a supporter

At this point, I am letting her guide me into how much she needs me and where she wants me to be. She gave me that gift when I was going through my treatment and it was so very precious. But, just like she held my hand, literally and figuratively, throughout the two years that I fought this disease. I too am holding her hand and I won't let go until she tells me to.

The steps to being a good friend and supporter are simple: listen and do. 

Listen to her. Or just sit with her silently. But either way, give her space where she's comfortable sharing with you what's in her heart without that moment becoming about you. Don't be so stoic that you don't have any emotions. But find the balance between being a good listener and sharing her emotions.

Do what needs to be done. You have a home and a career or business and a family. You may not know all of her details and systems but you have a good idea of what it takes to run a household and to keep your career or business on track. Breast cancer treatment will wear you out - mentally, physically and financially. Don't ask her what she needs, just do something that she needs. At your home, the dishes and laundry get washed, right? Well, at her home, those things will need to get done too - but she's probably too exhausted to do them. Show up, and help out. Or gift her some maid service for a few months. Something like that will be super appreciated. Take her kids for an overnight visit or a trip to the movies. Visa gift cards or gift cards to a restaurant she likes that delivers.

Be easy on yourself... it's hard for everyone to cope

I still struggle with guilt behind this disease. I think that's life though. You can overthink everything if you try. And I seem to try daily and succeed at it. Your friend wants to be understood, given room to grieve, helped out without feeling guilty about needing help, and to still be treated like someone you love. If you master that, you win it all.

~Nicole (forever a pink ribbon sister)

PS. I wrote a helpful ebook to guide you to understand how to be a help when someone you love has been diagnosed with breast cancer. It is $9.99 and a worthwhile investment for your friendship. Click here to learn more:
Scripted: What to say when she's diagnosed
with breast cancer

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