16 Things I Learned When My Best Friend Got Cancer at 26

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May 30, 2014.  Home for the weekend towing my Grandpa along, I grabbed the keys to my car and left my parents to entertain him.  I was headed to my best friend's house for a walk and some quiet normalcy away from old men.  I needed this.

Somehow, though, I knew.  There had been rumors, but I didn't believe them because she would have told me already.  There's no way she wouldn't have told me.  So I drove over my favorite stretch of road and breathed in the beautiful cotton candy backdrop as the day gingerly melted into night.  I went over a hill and my stomach flipped.  It'd been a while since I drove over this way and hills in the road affected me after driving on the flat roads of Long Island.  Looking at that sky, I smiled.  I just knew that when I saw her, I had to smile and not cry.  I waited until I got home for that.

Her cancer diagnosis forced me to grow up and stop looking at the world as a place dishing out fair results; it's not and the sooner accepted that, the happier I'd be.  Below is a list of 16 Things I Learned When My Best Friend Got Cancer at 26.

1. Deep down, I knew exactly the response she wanted.
Some people want you to cry it out with them, or hold them while they do.  Others want you to laugh and make jokes.  For some people, this is a big deal and you have to act like it.  For others, this is a big deal and you absolutely cannot act like it.  My friend told me her news, then asked me to sign her living will.  You know the reaction they want, so give them that and not the greeting card version.

2. When I didn't know how to respond, I followed her lead.
My friend didn't cry when she told me because she'd already cried and told other people who cried as well and I think by now she was tired of crying.  So I didn't cry even though I wanted to fall on the ground and kick and scream.  Instead, I asked questions and did my best to make it sound like our usual conversations, gossiping about someone from high school or an annoying thing that happened at work.

3. The best thing I could do was educate myself.
Cancer is scary stuff and the Internet is just ripe with terrifying information.  There will be images out there you will never fully be able to remove from your brain once you have seen them, but what I'm saying is to look at it and keep reading until your eyes burn.  When she calls you and she's talking about the next step in treatment, it'll be a lot easier if you understand what she's telling you instead of stopping her in the middle and questioning the definition of the terms she's using.  Why frustrate and remind her how foreign her situation is to you, how this is not a universal stage for every twenty-something?

4. As much I you wanted to take this away from her, I couldn't.
If anything, I regret this one statement I made twice the night she told me: "This shouldn't be happening to you it should be happening to Blah Blah.  Blah Blah deserves this."  No, Blah Blah doesn't deserve it.  No one deserves it.  Reminding her that someone worse than her "deserved" this wasn't going to make her feel better about her situation and it wasn't like God was going to hear me and say, "Good point Jen!  I'll give cancer to Blah Blah instead, thanks for calling me out on this one."

5. I didn't have any idea how strong she was.
Sure, you've seen her inhale more alcohol than water in the Pacific Ocean and still manage to walk a straight line.  She's gone through overly dramatic break-ups and still finds the gumption to smile the moment he walks out of her life for good.  All of that is chump change compared to what she's going through when she has chemo pumping through her arm.  

6. I had to keep reminding her there was a world outside of her fight.
Sometimes, you get so deep into the trenches that it's all you can think about it.  There were times when I was with her and all I wanted to do was ask her how she was feeling and what medicine she was on and was she eating right?  She had enough people asking her those questions.  Instead, I did my best to make sure when I talked to her it was to make fun of a bad Facebook post or the status of a past crush.  I just wanted to remind her that our friendship wasn't consumed by cancer too.

7. My worldview dramatically changed.
For me, there is a precise moment I can point to where my world changed: the moment on the sidewalk when she said the words "I have breast cancer."  The available choices were to scream and cry about how unfair this was or to accept that life was changing and adapt to that.  It was this moment in my life where I realized lots of bad stuff is going to happen throughout my time on Earth and this was just one of the many.  Breaking down wasn't going to help me get through it.

8.  Similarly, the world keeps moving.
When a friend of ours passed away during college, I was mad the world didn't stop.  When my best friend went in for her mastectomy, I thought everyone should stop working and mope with me but the people I was working with didn't know my friend existed.  She didn't know them, they didn't know her, why should their day stop?  The world keeps moving through the pain whether you want it to or not.  Sometimes, this is cathartic

9. Be there.  Distance doesn't exist anymore, so don't use it as an excuse.
I quit my second job and it was the best decision I've ever made.  I loved that second job more than I love my full-time one, but doing so meant I could be home more often.  It was that simple.  When I wasn't there, I sent her texts (not overwhelmingly so) and reminded her how easy I was to reach out to.

10.  Throwing together fundraisers in her name, without asking her, might not be the best idea you've ever had.
Some people like this, some people don't.  Just, ask first.  Seriously.

11.  When things get low, you learn whether or not you're a good friend.
If there's anything I learned, it was absolutely that tragedy shows you who your true friends are.  It also shows you whether you have the ability to step up to the plate and be a good friend.  It's easy to sort out the people who are there for you and who aren't, but I had to make sure I was putting forth the effort to be one of those people she sorted into the "there for me" pile.

12.  You're going to cry.  A lot.
I don't think I've ever cried so much over anything in my life.  And not once, but multiple times.  I cried the moment I left her after she told me.  I cried the day she went in for her mastectomy in my office's bathroom.    I cried the day of her first chemo treatment.  I cried in my office's bathroom (again) on the day she got her last chemo treatment.  She doesn't know that (maybe now she will).

13. Everything I ever whined about became ridiculously insignificant.
Doesn't mean I stopped whining, but sometimes I would catch myself and think, "My best friend fought cancer this year.  She had her breasts removed.  She lost her hair.  Her body was ravaged by chemo.  I can stand my horrible boss today."

14. Just because she was going through a rough time didn't mean she stopped being MY friend too.
This is one I've only recently begun to fully understand.  Just because her life changed in this drastic way didn't mean she stopped caring about me and everyone else's lives.  She was still there for me when I need to whine about mundane things.  She never shoved it in my face that what she was going through was far scarier and taxing than anything going on in my life.

15.  Hair means nothing.
I am so vain about my hair; I really am.  I've donated before, but it wasn't without intense tears and regret.  When I realized she was going to lose hers, I didn't blink an eye.  I cut mine off.  Hair will grow back.  Or it won't.  But my hair isn't who I am, so the length doesn't make me a good person or a bad person or a cool person.

16.  I am weak.
If I was diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, even though I watched my best friend go through it all courageously I would still collapse on the floor, crying and screaming and whining.  I am not as strong as my best friend.  She will always be the stronger one.  When I realized that, I realized why she'd been in my life so long.  Because she's always loved me when I've been weak, always encouraged me, and never stopped being my friend even when she probably had a list of reasons not to be.


  1. I sincerely hope that she reads this...this inspired me beyond belief <3

  2. I absolutely love this. My best friend was diagnosed when we were in Year 10 (so that's when we're around 15) so when I saw this post I absolutely had to read it. I can relate to pretty much everything; especially reminding them that there's a world outside of cancer. My friend has leukaemia and it had been changing his personality pretty dramatically so by the time he was diagnosed he was pretty isolated and depressed. Every day after school, we'd chat on the phone for a few hours about literally nothing - just catch him up on school gossip etc - and I think it's a nice form of escapism. It's insane how strong you realise they are when you watch them go through it. Anyways, as far as a first post to read of someone's goes this was brilliant! Definitely following. Have a great day, I wish your friend all the best!

    Mia - www.okaaythen.com

    1. Hi Mia,

      Thanks for the read! It's always nice to hear from people who've been through similar situations, and it's reaffirming to know that you're not alone! Very happy to make a new friend! :)

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