By Sonia Su
My conversations lately with young people undergoing cancer treatments have centered around the struggle of maintaining a social life with a cancer diagnosis. Whether in-person or virtual—especially due to the pandemic and general precautions as immunocompromised patients, interactions with friends, family, classmates, and colleagues inevitably change
The fear of missing out (FOMO) becomes simply missing out, and it sucks. At the time of my diagnosis, I had just completed one semester of graduate school, having made new friendships that suddenly fell into limbo. Social media emphasized how much I was missing out, as I spent my days in the hospital as often the youngest and only Asian woman who had yet to truly live life.
I do not see myself as someone who is very good at keeping friendships and relationships with or without cancer, so as with anyone offering advice, take what I write with a grain of salt. Your experiences may vary.
With me, some people were more comfortable than others with checking in. So that means some may simply never check in, and the subsequent perceptions of being ghosted, abandoned, or ignored can feel disheartening. Ultimately, if (and likely when) this happens, I prefer to believe that it is more about how they process events like this and less about the actual relationship between us. Maybe there is also the feeling of life passing by at play. It is hard on both sides to relate to each other, particularly when the Healthy Ones are graduating from school, getting married, starting families, pursuing their careers, and well, living life. I cannot explain exactly why a friend or sibling does not seem to show sympathy or care, but situations that tend to be difficult to explain, including a cancer diagnosis itself, may not be worth trying to understand. Make peace with reality and what you have today.
After all, keep in mind that this period, no matter how dark it can get, may only be temporary. It is okay to dream and conceive of new ambitions at any stage of our lives, even if those dreams are "simply" to be healthy and safe. Life may not have really started for many young adults, but it does not mean it will not. I recently chatted with an entrepreneur and cancer survivor who is almost 70 years old. She owns a skincare business and dreams of selling her products in Target stores. So while most people will undergo major life events around our age, age or real and perceived setbacks like cancer should not and does not prevent us from being able to do the same or more a few or even many years later. Listen to podcasts from One Tough B, for example, featuring the stories of so many incredible women who have bounced back from cancer (including yours truly!).
Then there are people who show up and support you in unexpected ways. (Strangely, some might only stick around while you are sick.) If anything, this reveals who is willing to stick with you through the worst times. Even better, you will make new friendships (hi!), and these folks will help you see that you are not alone. There is hope.
In fact, talking and typing out your feelings helps, and don’t ever let anyone tell you your feelings are not valid. They are. You may have heard of something called toxic positivity—when well-intentioned people just tell you to “be positive” and “don’t think or worry about the bad things” when honestly, you have all the rights to feel what you feel. Feel the whole spectrum of emotions. You may be physically restricted, but your mind is free to wander and that is okay. There is a lot of loss and jealousy, and some days will make you question why life can be so unfair. Connect with people who understand that and will lend an ear without judgment or counterproductive comments like "#goodvibesonly!!" Check out therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab and her work on Instagram and her book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace.
With or without cancer, though, I see people doing amazing things all the time (a bit of imposter’s syndrome). Celebrate your own accomplishments, big and small, and be proud of how far you have come. Jealousy is natural, and we are carving our own path that one day may invite the envy of others—or not. Either way, everyone lives according to their own pace. This is yours.