I have a confession to make.
Although I found cancer traumatic, it didn’t compare to the distress I felt when I realized that I had been abandoned, without justification, by close friends during my treatment.
When I was at my most vulnerable, I found myself ghosted by those that a few months BC (before cancer) had been happy to celebrate and share in the good times on my wedding day. Where were they now that times were hard?
What is cancer ghosting?
You might have heard of the term ‘ghosting’ as an all-too-common occurrence in modern dating. It refers to the termination of a relationship by abruptly ending communication without explanation. With 'cancer ghosting', family and friends seemingly disappear without explanation when you announce a cancer diagnosis.
I thought my experience was unique until I opened up to fellow cancer survivors who found themselves in the same unenviable position. Formal research conducted by War on Cancer found that 65% of surveyed survivors said they had friends or relatives who cut contact or pulled away from them after a diagnosis .
Why do people ghost?
The reasons behind ghosting are complicated.
The main reason for cancer ghosting could lie in the fact that cancer is still a stigmatized and taboo disease, especially colorectal and gynecological cancers. I experienced this first-hand when I saw work colleagues awkwardly withdraw from me at the mention of my own cervical cancer diagnosis.
Here are some of the more ‘palatable’ reasons cancer ghosting might occur;
- People may be unsure how to help you, worried about saying the wrong thing and upsetting you.
- Cancer is a distressing reminder of human fragility and mortality.
- People experiencing trauma themselves may feel unable to provide emotional support to anyone else.
- People have an idea of what cancer looks like and are scared to witness you go through it.
- People may feel guilt at living a happy life whilst you are suffering. For example, a few of my friends disappeared during my treatment when they fell pregnant. I assume they felt too guilty to share this with me as I had been openly planning a family before I was diagnosed with cancer.
The final point is a difficult one to process. Perhaps you might have over-calculated your significance to the ghost. Your sadness and frustration might lie in the misjudged opinion of your relationship.
Maybe I am crediting the ghosts with too much compassion and making excuses for bad behavior?
Cancer is an emotional ‘roller-ghoster’
I must now admit to my own ‘ghostly’ behavior during cancer treatment.
I withdrew and felt it necessary to disappear, to shield those around me from the trauma my diagnosis and treatment were causing me. I thought disappearing prepared people for my loss if treatment was unsuccessful (this was my morbid way of dealing with the situation!).
I was lucky as the people that mattered could see I was struggling and pulled me closer towards them. My own ghosting was to try and protect those that I loved from getting hurt.
Why does ‘ghosting’ hurt?
Everyone is guilty of a bit of amateur psychoanalysis after being ghosted by a date; you might pour over the messages, giving a narrative to the silence and question whether your behavior or actions led to being ghosted.
You feel even more vulnerable with cancer ghosting because cancer is not your fault! It is not something you have control over and is not something you can change.
Rejection of any kind is difficult to accept, especially when experienced during a situation as traumatic as cancer.
How to respond to being ghosted?
This is your journey and only you will know the right way to navigate through it.
Do what you need to do to protect yourself; if you do not receive the care you deserve, the least you can do is provide it to yourself.
If someone has responded to your cancer diagnosis by ghosting you and they have not attempted any form of communication, you have an invitation to relinquish the relationship. It is hard to give up on someone you are emotionally invested in, even if they have hurt you. If you need to walk away, give yourself permission to grieve the loss before moving on.
I found it helpful to gain my own closure by reframing the narrative from ‘they do not care for me’ to ‘they are unable to provide me with what I need from a relationship’.
Can you ever be friends with a ghost?
If the relationship means a lot and you want to reconnect, you could always reach out when you feel strong enough. Take that deep breath and have that honest but difficult conversation and don't forget to set boundaries that honor your needs.
Instead of focusing precious energy on those that disappeared from your life, focus on connections that never left your side or seek out a new tribe from the incredible cancer community. You have a right to be accepted as you are, cancer baggage and all!
My treasured post-cancer network of family and friends is one strengthened in the face of adversity. I might not have the same friendship group that I had before cancer, but I know that I am with the people that I am supposed to be with.
In the words of the Dalai Lama - “Not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck”.