The Dickensian Cast of Characters Lurking When Cancer Strikes

The Dickensian Cast of Characters Lurking When Cancer Strikes Gail Boston

by Gail Boston

Cancer has a way of upending a settled life. It creates a fissure of vulnerability, a raw opening for both the individual diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones. The newly fragile may face awkward, even painful encounters with the many friends and acquaintances who, though perhaps well meaning, bring a rush of curiosity and undue attention at a time when you least need it. 

When my husband got the news, we quickly decided to reject the many requests for medical updates. We were scared, overwhelmed, and needing to focus on getting the right medical team and treatment. We didn’t want to be forced into a box by anyone. We didn’t want cancer to define how we lived. 

For those living through cancer, carefully consider how others affect you. After an encounter, ask yourself the following questions. Are you drained or uplifted and peaceful? Do you feel seen? There are so many wonderful people in the world. Don’t let the cancer ghouls like these below take up space. 


These hungry, insatiable fiends come out of the woodwork to probe and feast on the tasty morsels of the health crisis. Beware! Avoid! Don’t answer calls or texts. They will find another source to feed on. Ghost these ghouls before they suck you dry.


Clucking is a term used for those who keep banging on about how sorry they are, ripping the band-aide off again and again. These inappropriate nuisances cluck-up at a joyful baby shower, a luncheon, or on a hike. 

Remind them that they have said they are sorry on several occasions. Then lean in, look them in the eyes, and ask, “But are you okay? I’m concerned about your health. Is everything ok?” I find this works like a champ. 

The Disappeared

This is the most disappointing category. These are the people who simply can’t be around illness. At a time when close friends are needed the most, they are simply gone. It compounds the loss happening during a health crisis. Perhaps these sorts fear death and lack character and compassion. 

Maybe you shifted from a caregiver for this person to a friend needing support. The reason may be as superficial as someone wanting to pack as much fun into life as possible. It feels like a loss, but it’s really a liberation. It is empowering to clearly see who can make it to the top of the mountain when the air is getting thinner.

It is part of “the great culling.” That is one of the best aspects of evolving as a human being. After the initial hurt dissipates, inner strength will come. It is a difficult growth experience, but you’ll come out knowing better who you are. 


Why does anyone other than a medical expert need to know tumor size, stage of cancer, and life expectancy? Some people seem to want a statistical scorecard, treating cancer like a game and asking bizarrely specific questions. Suggest they buy tickets to a sporting event and leave these private details to the medical team. 

Prayer Groupers 

If you start to receive texts coming like clockwork on Sundays with leading phrases such as “Thinking of you…,” you are likely on a prayer list. If they offer something more substantial than pity, feel free to accept, thus fulfilling their need as well. Otherwise, gently treat them like brand marketers, canceling your subscription. “Thank you. We are all set here.”

The Woo-Woos

These narcissists are self-proclaimed healers; they are often egoists who have decided they hold all the power and wisdom of the world. They ask intrusive medical questions of the person with cancer, lay hands on them without permission, and make absolute proclamations such as “You will be clear.” 

They may even call themselves doctors without having earned a medical degree. Be clear of these narcissists. Avoid them altogether. Life is too short for these types. 


They punctuate each health update with some insipid positive remark, refusing to actually see you or your needs. Avoid giving them true updates. Stick with: “We’re fine, thank you.” Treat them as the children they are. They are incapable of viewing the complexities of life. 

Faux Friends

They lean in closely and ask, “How are you really?” This could be in line at the grocery store or during an intermission at a play. They never bother to come by or call, write a note, or drop off soup. 

They just want to know the details of your crisis without putting in the extra time that true friendship requires. Give them nothing. Say, “We’re busy gardening and planning our vacation… How are you!? I haven’t seen you in forever.”


These unimaginative folks like to tell stories about other people they knew or know with cancer. They may even offer medical advice or a referral for a doctor. They want to engage as empathetic, but really, it’s just depressing to hear this blather.

If they persist, say, “No two cancer experiences are alike.” An abrupt pivot such as “Have you read any good books lately?” generally works. Change the channel.

Silent Supporters

These are friends in the truest sense. They are quietly there listening and assisting as needed. They are there for walks, swimming, or a comfortable dinner together … whatever works for the moment in these swift and changing currents. Love them forever. These are your true friends. Say “thank you” often. 

There’s absolutely no need to be an open book when it comes to one’s private health. Learning tactics to efficiently redirect and blunt unwelcome intrusions helped us reclaim our lives and marshal our flagging energy. 

It is important to actively protect yourselves, to preserve your precious energy and joy. There are so many lovely people in the world. Save space for those who lift you up.

Gail Boston is a cancer caregiver to her husband, and they live in Austin, TX.

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