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Breast Cancer Showed Me Who My True Friends Were

Rachel Garlinghouse sits in her room with her hair in a messy bun, glassy eyes, and a sad expression on her face.
Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

“Hey. How are you doing?”

The text came from a friend, casual and surprising. And I chose to ignore it.

Justifiably, I was angry, hurt, and bitter. And I was working hard to pour my energy into the most pressing issue: continuing to heal from my bi-lateral mastectomy.

Only my very closest friends and family members knew that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was important to me to make sure I gave myself the time and space to make treatment decisions without worrying about the perceptions and opinions of others.

A few weeks after I had my bi-lateral mastectomy and was in the midst of my three-month recovery, I chose to announce on social media what I’d been dealing with. Many friends asked how they could help, and our number one request, as a family of six, was meals.

We were floored by the friends who signed up, multiple times, to bring our large family food over the course of my recovery. We received everything from pizza, to Mexican buffets, to homemade cookies and casseroles. I also received cards and gifts, and perhaps the most meaningful were the messages that would pop up on my phone.

Recovering from a major surgery and healing from something as traumatizing as cancer is difficult for even the strongest of women. And that’s me, always labeled as the “strong one.” Breast cancer wasn’t my first disease. Eleven years prior, I had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, type 1 diabetes, when I was on death’s door. I felt like the cat with nine lives: I just kept coming back. People told me all the time how much they admired my strength; my ability to overcome.

It was disappointing how so many ‘friends’ chose to ignore the real, true, shattered me.
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But being strong is exhausting. At the forefront of my mind, always, were my four children.  I was strong for them but I needed space to be weak. And I needed that in my “nearest and dearest,” my family and friends.

As the weeks during my recovery crawled forward, I began to notice who wasn’t texting, visiting, or mailing anything. Women whom I thought were my real friends. I knew they were busy with their kids and jobs, but I also knew that others still had made time to extend encouragement and kindness. Why some and not others?

It wasn’t that I gave them little-to-nothing and expected a lot. These were women whom I had sent cards to when they lost a loved one, women I texted “just because,” women I frequently hung out with when our kids played together at the park, women I’d had over to my house for a ladies’ night.

Their silence, as the saying goes, was deafening.

I was already in a very vulnerable place. My body was different. My mind and heart were, too. I was changed, because that’s what cancer does. It changes a person, rendering them broken and terrified.

And it’s not like I put on a brave front. I shared my pain on social media, both my private accounts and my public blog accounts. I encouraged women to do their breast self-exams and to listen to their bodies. I wrote articles about my experience of being only 35 and having breast cancer.

And still, there was silence.

No matter how strong a woman is, she still has feelings. She still has a heart. She still has needs. And it was disappointing how so many “friends” chose to ignore the real, true, shattered me.

Cancer taught me many lessons, but one of the most important is that we, as women, need to know our value and honor our energy. If we choose to pour into others and they don’t reciprocate, that’s not real friendship. And when we have this realization, that is when we need to have the courage to gently wish them well and move forward.

I lost friends during my cancer journey. But I gained new friends, too. And most importantly, I learned who my true friends are.

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Article Posted 2 years Ago

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