When Someone You Love Has Breast Cancer
Janine E. Guglielmino, MA, Living Beyond Breast Cancer's senior director, programs and partnerships, served as guest editor for the Love & Intimacy (August/September) issue of Wildfire Magazine, a reader-generated, bimonthly magazine for young women diagnosed with breast cancer. The Editor's Note below was originally published in the print and digital editions, which can be found at wildfirecommunity.org.
Examining the intersection between breast cancer and relationships is core to my role in delivering programs for Living Beyond Breast Cancer. No matter what the type of relationship—whether with a healthcare provider, family member, loved one, employer, or in that most challenging relationship, with oneself—I spend much of each day, every day, considering how breast cancer disrupts and reorders identity, for each person and for all those they touch within their circle.
That’s why I surprised myself when I balked at April’s suggestion that my editor’s note could speak from personal experience. I haven’t had breast cancer. What could I possibly bring to the table?
My mind wandered to my first personal experience with breast cancer. Twenty years ago, my dear friend E. was diagnosed a few weeks before her 32nd birthday. I was 29. I vividly remember holding the phone to my left ear, wet with sweat, as she told me. I was going to journalism school on weekends. Could I accompany her to some of the appointments since I was good at note-taking?
I went to E.’s initial consultation and vigorously recorded notes. We talked through her clinical trial options. Sometimes I took her to chemo, and we drove together to acupuncture afterward. When she had her last treatment, I helped plan the party she requested to celebrate. During her surgery, I sat in the waiting room with her (now ex-) boyfriend until the doctor emerged to declare himself victorious—except for losing that darn clip somewhere. He’d go back in later to find it, he said. I spent the night at her apartment to help her manage the pain and deal with the drains. She loaned me a copy of The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer—and Back by Katherine Russell Rich to help me better understand what she was experiencing. We crapped about the aloofness of the radiation oncologist, the fatigue brought on by treatment. We cooked Thanksgiving dinner together, baking the stuffing separate from the turkey to protect her from infection.
Because I’m a journalist, I should write about my feelings about all of it, E. encouraged. For that reason alone, I believed I never should, or could. The breast cancer was her story, not mine.
When the treatment and the chemo parties were over and we went back to our daily lives, my relationship with E. was transformed. I couldn’t understand why. She seemed angry with me, and disappointed. Maybe she didn’t like that I suddenly changed from being a bookworm to going out drinking several nights a week, engaging in risky behavior with strange men. I saw my upcoming milestone birthday as an excuse to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And I was an adult—wasn’t that my right? I didn’t know how to talk with her what had happened to our relationship. In one painful conversation about it, I couldn’t hear what she was trying to tell me, though her words were specific and direct. “I can never repay you for what you did for me, and that makes me feel guilty,” E. said. When I decided to upend my life, moving to Philadelphia to work at LBBC, E. did not know what to say. And I didn’t either. I felt guilty and self-centered and wrong; I was certain our relationship was forever damaged.
Over time, the strain between us dissipated. E. faced another life-altering illness. We talked about the challenges of coping with our aging parents. She and I both met partners that changed the course of our lives. Although she lives far from me, E. supported me during some of my lowest moments, and reassured me that the work I do matters. Fast forward to a few years ago, E. is visiting nearby and travels to Philadelphia to see me. We sit in an ice cream shop and talk and laugh. We get pedicures like we used to, before breast cancer happened. Our relationship feels as easy as that well-worn spot on my couch where I always sit to read magazines.
And yet there are still things I have never told E. about how breast cancer affected our relationship. She was correct that it would be easier for me to write them than to say them. So here goes…
On your last day of chemo, when you were flush with happiness from ringing the bell, I was filled with dread that cancer would remain and you would need more treatment. I was pissed at your surgeon for losing that clip and for being so damn self-congratulatory about it. Many times I felt angry at people for not being there for you, even some people you loved a lot — including myself. I was mad I couldn’t do more, and mad I couldn’t maturely manage my life and my emotions. I knew I was disappointing you and fucking up, and yet I didn’t know how to stop myself and almost didn’t care to. I hated that you felt you owed me anything, because I wanted to be there because I loved you. I enjoyed the stuffing cooked separate, the lovingly simmered cranberry sauce, and all the moments we shared together. At times I was terrified I would do or say the wrong thing or, even worse, that I would not know what to do. I am sorry for any sentence I ever uttered that started with, “I think you need to…” You were right (as usual): as your friend, I had a right to my emotions, and I should have borne them because it added to your burden, and to mine. Your breast cancer affected me enough to change the trajectory of my life, and today I hope you are proud of me. The breast cancer was your story, but as a part of your circle, I should have realized that it was also part of mine.
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