What is a friend?


Does knitting gloves for a friend define friendship?

Today’s post has been jointly written by me and my friend Rach, blogger at The Cancer Culture Chronicles, following a Skype where we talked about my ‘World without cancer‘ post.

One of the themes of the week has been one of deep reflecting about friendship. Rach was saying to me yesterday that some of her ‘friends’ have simply stopped asking her how she is, now she has metastatic breast cancer. Or they’ll send one line emails that say ‘How are you?’. Do they want the truthful reply that might take more than one line, or do they just want to hear that she’s ‘good’?  ‘Just read my blog’, she sometimes curtly replies. Others might just send meaningless, closed messages, like ‘Thinking of you.’ Messages encouraging no reply.

So, we’d like to ask our friends. Are you prepared to go down cancer’s rabbit hole? All the way?

Thinking about cancer, and death, has meant that I now view friends differently. Friendship, post cancer diagnosis, is deeper. Rach has similar feelings on friendships today. She simply doesn’t have the physical or emotional energy to manage friends who, through the passage of time and lives moving on, have really just become acquaintances. Her circle of friends is now much smaller, but she knows they are people she can rely on. And that’s never been more important.

And these reflections on friendship had prompted me to do a hefty Facebook clear-out of my friends, realising that many of them aren’t really my ‘friends’ after all, and I was telling Rach about this. In our usual snarky way me and Rach started joking about it. ‘Did I make the cut?’ Rach sarcastically asked, and then, ‘What’s the criteria Sarah?’

I said, ‘Well you know real friends you go to lunch with don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ said Rach, ‘so is the definition of a friend someone you would go to lunch with?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s probably more than that.’ And so began much snorting with laughter and sarcasm. And our list of criteria for ‘What is a friend?’ was born.

So I start with: Would you go for lunch with them?

Rach swiftly responds with: Would you knit them gloves?

Me: Would you talk about stool softener and piles?

At this point we collapse into uncontrollable laughter.

Rach, the recipient of many short films from Liverpool, lovingly crafted for her by me, then says: Would you make them a film?

Ah, touché.

So I respond with: Would you post their favourite chocolate 3,500 miles to them?

We laugh and fall back into chatting. Later that evening I relate the conversation to Ronnie, who’d heard us from the next room laughing and shouting in pleasure. This prompts further discussion, a bit deeper really and we start to add to the list.

Ronnie starts with: Would you visit them for longer than the first six weeks after their breast cancer diagnosis?

I sigh deeply. Yes. That one’s true.

And then he continues: Would you cross the ocean just for the pleasure of being with them?

Ronnie’s obviously hit a vein of truth as he then says: If anything bad happened to them, would you ring them up?

Now there’s a novel thought. Ring them up. Because that’s something that cancer patients get used to. The sound of silence. Yes.

And not much better than silence really is that ‘Thinking of you’ statement. What is it about me that you are thinking about?

So if you’re ‘thinking’ of me or Rach, perhaps you’d like to think about doing one of the above. Take your pick. They’re all good. Especially the stool softener.

I am so grateful to Rach for our Skype conversations which brighten up any day of the week.

24 thoughts on “What is a friend?

  1. Friends are like piles…you only really need 1 or 2 to know they are there….they stick around thru thick and thin….they know you intimatley….and they can make you laugh or cry…..sending the love and friendship to all who read this post Karen x

  2. :D, Karen!!! This is wonderful. And a topic worthy of expansion (and contraction, as needed). Ronnie’s questions are particularly brilliant. And Karen’s point about a real friend being someone who can make you laugh or cry, and I’d add, with whom you can laugh or cry. And one of mine has always been, who would you feel comfortable calling in an emergency? And who can you call when you feel like utter shite? Who would you contact when you get bad news? Really bad news?

    Hmmm. Facebook has changed the friendship landscape, too, hasn’t it? As a practical matter, some of the questions might need to be tweeked a little. Like, which FB friends do you or would you Skype with?

    Food for thought…


  3. would you hold their hand and sing to them until they fall asleep and stop crying.
    would you help them pay for medical insurance when you had TONS of money.

  4. Cancer does have a way of weeding them out doesn’t it? Nice post. I agree with Kathi that Facebook has changed the landscape, but only on the surface. The meaning of true friendship hasn’t really changed and probably never will.

    Another question might be would you allow them to see you bald or any time you looked or felt your absolute worst? Or would you ask this person for advice when you don’t know what to do?

    • Yes, Nancy, I know there were very few people could actually help Sarah to feel better when she was low. And those most free with advice were those who also didn’t stick around. ‘The Miracle Cures’ we call them.

    • Nancy – I agree, the true nature of friendship hasn’t changed. It’s just a little ‘odd’ that the term ‘Friends’ has come to mean something slightly different through Facebook.
      Looks like we’re going to be compiling a new list at this rate. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  5. This is a great, thought provoking post. It’s a topic I think about a lot since one of the few people I confided my diagnosis in, blew me off without a word a couple of months later, essentially blaming me for the disintergration of our friendship. Still stings. Facebook makes it possible to have many aquaintances, which isn’t a bad thing. I think we know who are true friends are. The trick is not to mix that up.

    • Sorry, but not surprised to hear about the friend who disappeared, Stacey. For us, anyway, that sort of thing cleared the space for the stronger friends who are now in our lives. Several of whom have helped us write this blog all month. Hope that kind of thing has happened for you too?

  6. Yes, cancer does indeed change the meaning of friendship. Age does too as we become wiser and more mindful of our friends. We want to surround ourselves with friends that truly are friends, not the fair-weather small talk type whom you would not call with bad news or just to complain. you know the kind…how are you? wow is it cold today. or just let me know if i can do anything for you. A true friend is always there, does not judge or give opinions and actually does things FOR you. Am losing a dear friend as I write, and though i will lose her in body, the real value of a friend is not lost and she will always be with me. Which reminds me, while i have several incredible long-time friends, many of my dearest are new friends. Perhaps it is cancer that does this, changes the way we view our friends. I have known Sue for less than a year but it seems like we’ve known each other forever.

    love the humor…..peace to all

  7. Friends really is a word loosely defined in these days of social networks. The true friend digs deeper, into the stool softener and the breast prostheses “fish flesh.” The true friend delves into the stress behind the symptoms of pain. Into the true heart of the person who is hurting. Since my two diagnoses of breast cancer I am much more adept at discerning who are my real friends. And I needn’t meet them face to face. But neither do I take them at face value on Facebook. Great discussion.

      • Yes, Jan, as Ronnie says, thanks very much for joining in so enthusiastically this month and following the blog. What do you mean by breast prostheses ‘fish flesh’ – I wasn’t clear?

      • By fish flesh I just meant that the prostheses look like fish tat has been filleted. They are the pink color that one would expect, and they are flexible. Someone else called them that and I agreed with the analogy.

  8. I am in a slightly different position with cancer treatment because it’s not just my needs but my whole family’s. I depend on my community — awkward or sincere — to help me manage everybody’s needs. I have to ask and ask and ask: for meals, rides, and playdates.

    I think, from having been a part of my brother’s treatment, that children create a different level of dependency. I need all my friends and all my acquaintances as I head into my third year of getting mowed down.

    Just thought I’d give a different perspective.

    PS how soft are your stools these days? ;-)

  9. Thanks CB. Yes I don’t have any idea how we could have got through these last years of surgery and treatment if we had children to care for too – our experience was that we didn’t have a queue of people offering to help us anyway. So we’ve been able to just put our heads down and do it together, and be fairly selfish about it. With children there are many needs to cater for, so I’m glad you do have people who you can ask, and who can help.

    I think this also shows that the cancer path is individual. We all need different things. There’s no one size fits all treatment or response.

    PS Stools not a problem, it’s piles for me. :-s

  10. Glad to see this reposted Sarah. Because it’s deeply meaningful. But also because it reminds me of the joyous noise of you two making it up. A sacred memory.

    And for anyone thinking ‘Why didn’t he just turn round and say that to her?’ Well, dear reader, I’m sitting on an agonisingly slow ‘train replacement bus’ crawling around the middle of nowhere, trying to get back from Manchester. With tears in my eyes, caused by the line about ‘would you cross the ocean?’ If you love someone with mets, get across that ocean now.

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