Cancer Ghosting: The Traumatic Side Effect of Cancer No One Warns You About

Cancer Ghosting: The Traumatic Side Effect of Cancer No One Warns You About

Kirsty
Author
Kirsty
Author

Kirsty Oldroyd

8 days ago at 3:37 PM

Cancer is a complex experience for the patient as well as for their friends and family. Sometimes when friends and relatives don't know what to say, they disappear. Read on to learn more about what cancer ghosting is and what you can do about it.

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 [1].

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”.

More Like This

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Why Positivity Isn't Sustainable if You Ignore Your Feelings About Your Diagnosis
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7 comments

Last activity by Melanie Jones

Katherine
Katherine Murphy

This article really hit close to home with me, I really felt this when we were going through things in our family. A lot of people were great, but several people did and said things that were not helpful

J
Jill Kyle

Yes, I felt this today.

J
Janet Cuccio

This happened to me too! I didn't know there was a name for it. I'm so sad reading all of these other stories, but I have to say that it makes me feel better to know that we are not alone.

Luke
Luke Smith

Great read.

Ashley
Ashley Yesayan

I really felt this article, what an awesome piece. I have thought a lot about it, and agree with the author. The people who have fallen out of my life since cancer all had different reasons behind them, but overall I found that going through this showed me which of my friends and family would be there for me even when things were awkward and weird and they didn't know what to do, and which of them suddenly became really busy.

Sid
Sid Mahoun

This completely describes my experience, it's great that there's a name for this.

M
Melanie Jones

This is spot on. It feels awful when people stop showing up. I have been feeling selfish for feeling that way so it was nice to see that the author of this piece also felt the same way. Sending love to everyone going through this!

Anonymous

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