Thursday 19 September 2019

Dear Mary: Friend's cancer diagnosis has reignited my grief

Stock photo: Getty Images
Stock photo: Getty Images

Mary O’Conor

I lost my mother and sister to cancer in the last seven years and their deaths have affected me deeply. Time has passed, the raw sorrow has lessened and I can now speak about the happy times we had without crying, but I'm still dealing with missing them so much.

My childhood best friend found me on Facebook recently. I was delighted to meet up with her and the thought of continuing our friendship filled me with much-needed joy.

She was having trouble with her health and found out two weeks ago that she has cancer.

She's been talking to me about it on Messenger and I'm ashamed to admit it's terrifying me.

I know I'm being very selfish but it's bringing back painful memories that I can't cope with. I'm also not very good with how to respond to her. I've no experience of a cancer patient who survived, so don't know if I should be saying she'll survive this, or agree with her fears.

I dread seeing her messages coming and take days to be able to read them - and then longer to respond.

I know she has a strong network of support, so she isn't relying on me solely.

I feel I have three choices; try and be a supportive friend to her and risk the pain this will cause me, cut our friendship now and feel extremely guilty about it and possibly hurt her feelings at this terrible time, or, thirdly, explain to her that I don't think I can cope with this, which could upset her too.

I'm not comfortable with any of these options and would be most grateful for your advice.

Mary replies: Both from personal experience, and that of friends I know, the death of a mother is a harrowing experience, especially if you saw her suffer. Add to that the death of a beloved sister and I can understand how full of grief you must have been following their deaths. You must have been so happy at the re-emergence of your old friend, only to have that happiness threatened by more cancer. And, if you don't know a cancer survivor, which lots of people do, then that makes it even more difficult for you.

You are not being at all selfish when trying to deal with this news. It is totally understandable that you feel at a loss, as to what you should do or say. Let's look at it from your friend's point of view. She is battling an illness which she may, or may not, survive and is reaching out to friends for their support. Her friends need to be positive in believing that she will win the battle, no matter what experiences they personally have had.

She knows all about the possibility, and probably her survival chances, depending on what type of cancer she has. She also needs to have her mind taken off her illness and that is where you can play your part. If you are in a position to meet up with her, so much the better, but if it is all done online then, after you hear how her treatment is going, talk about other things to her.

You can also be very honest and say that, because of your own losses through cancer, you are not the best person to be speaking about the disease.

It is a very short time since her diagnosis, so she will still be in shock and wanting to talk about it a lot, so it is good that she has her own strong support network. But you mustn't feel guilty - everything you personally are experiencing is completely normal. I hope you both have many years ahead of you.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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