Holiday season is upon us, a time to eat, drink, and be merry with loved ones. But for some, the season is a lingering reminder of our limitations. So much of the meaning in our lives comes through relationships. The work of love when threatening illness infiltrates a community is as delicate as it is infuriating. There few “right” ways to interact with severely ill people, and there are so many more wrong ones.
Sometimes the scars of illness impose a new dimension to the initial aesthetic impression of meeting new people. People sometimes perceive a dramatically different conception of a sick person’s identity compared to their pre-illness life, no longer knowing how to act toward them. Friends and family members may not know how to address the condition we are faced with; they may not know what to say or know how to handle the situation. As a person’s activities become restricted, some friendships that revolved around, say, an aerobics class, may suffer.
Sometimes illness infringes upon romantic life. For example, there’s no feeling sexy during chemo. Some treatments affect fertility, which can complicate delicate romantic situations. How do you share that vital information and when is the right time? You want to be transparent and let them know what they might be getting into but don’t want to scare them away.
These are disruptions and challenges that particularly accompany young adults confronted with serious illness. These are the years when friends are graduating college, starting careers, getting married, and starting families in stride. I am grateful for the innovative work of organizations like Stupid Cancer, M-Powerment, Hope and Cope, Teen Cancer America, and Cancer Fight Club, and many Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer programs in hospitals throughout the world. They are attempting to address the demand for specialized support for the global developmental challenges faced by people who have been dealt such a drastic disruption in the middle of the most formative years of their life.
While some friends disappear due to not knowing what to say and others overcompensate, many relationships thrive through the opportunity for community occasioned by illness. Regardless, illness almost always impacts not only the sick individual, but her entire squad as well.