Find Your Tribe

Find Your Tribe Vicki Culverhouse (left) and friend Karen

Navigating Friendships after Cancer

by Vicki Culverhouse

I was warned early on that my breast cancer diagnosis would cause a seismic shift in my relationships. Some people I had considered to be close friends drifted away. Others waded in to the murky waters of my chemo, keen to hear all the juicy details of my treatment so they could run to share the gossip with their own friends and – most importantly – congratulate themselves on not having cancer. I don’t hold it against them. They taught me the value of true friendships and how to recognize real friends when they show up.

After my diagnosis, my view on acquaintances was that if I usually only saw someone weekly or monthly before treatment, then we should keep it that way during treatment. I didn’t need any extra attention. As lovely as it is when people want to get in touch to check on you, it’s so hard to find the time to keep up with everyone. Getting 20 emails or texts every day asking how you are can be overwhelming when the last thing you want to do is respond to email.

I have no regrets about the time I spent with friends from my pre-cancer world or the fun we had together. But, now, for me, friendship isn’t just about the good stuff.

I did, however, reply to every single message. I knew that people’s interest in my well-being would wane over the lengthy treatment process. Before long, fewer and fewer people took the time to make contact. Replying to those who did keep in touch seemed like the right thing to do. Genuine kindness should always be rewarded. But letting go of certain people is important, too.

I gave up two people who, before I began my cancer journey, I had considered to be my closest friends. They didn’t text, ring, visit … or, frankly, do anything. Once my chemo brain fog had lifted, I asked them both why they had vanished from my life. The responses they gave weren’t exactly satisfying. They offered a lot of vague apologies but no real answers.

Considering how close we were, it’s odd that I don’t miss them now. But I don’t. It’s a strange road to walk.

This journey has caused me to reflect on each pre-cancer “friendship” and develop my own idea of what friendship means to me. I have no regrets about the time I spent with friends from my pre-cancer world or the fun we had together. But, now, for me, friendship isn’t just about the good stuff. It’s about knowing you can weather even the worst storm together, too.

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I don’t know how well I would have made it through my breast cancer journey without the friends who rode the cancer rollercoaster with me: Catherine, who was there to hold my hand in the breast clinic; Clips, who cried in private so she could be strong for me; and Karen, who stepped up to the plate and distracted me with a few well-timed and frivolous text conversations. These are the women who helped save my life, and for that, I’ll be forever thankful.

In the hour of your greatest need, the best thing you can do for your mental health is find your tribe. They might not be able to cure your cancer, but they can sure help make the journey far more bearable.


Vicki Culverhouse had been on the planet for 46 years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As the owner of a successful business and a single parent of two fabulous boys, she didn’t have time to be ill. What she didn’t expect was the significant positive impact that cancer would have on her life. Vicki published her cancer diary and the story of how she turned a bad experience into a life-affirming event at threelittlewords.co.uk. You can find Vicki on Twitter (@vic3littlewords) and Instagram (@vickithreelittlewords).

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2020.

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