Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Healing Power of Friends

I read some astonishing research today about social networks and cancer.

Of course, we already know the importance of friends when we go through life's traumas.  When cancer hit like a speeding truck, I was amazed by the support we received: practically, emotionally and spiritually.

It certainly made me feel better.  It gave me courage, filled me with hope, carried me forward on a rising tide of well wishes.  But it wasn't going to make the cancer go away.  Was it?

According to a study published in 2012 by scientists at Kaiser Permanente, it just might.  The study showed that women with early stage invasive cancer who have strong social networks have significantly lower mortality rates than women who are socially isolated.   

At first I assumed this was probably because people with good support networks get more practical support, allowing them to rest and heal.  Apparently not.  Even allowing for these factors, the research showed that you have better chances of beating cancer simply by having people to encourage and uplift you.  Isn't that incredible?

Great news if you are already lucky enough to enjoy a network of friends who are supporting you through your cancer.  But if you are feeling isolated, then this leaves you worse off than ever with nothing you can do about it, doesn't it?

Maybe there is more we can do than we realise, starting by taking an honest look at our reaction to cancer.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: having cancer sucks.  Who could blame us for being angry and bitter about the hand we've been dealt?  People around us don't understand and can sometimes say the worst possible things, however well meaning. It's only natural to lash out at the people closest to us and then retreat.

Leaving ourselves isolated.

Our challenge is to understand that it isn't easy for the people around us either.  They don't know what to say.  They probably want to help but don't know how.  If we don't guide them, they are likely to back away.

On the other hand, offer people a way in and I've been amazed by the willingness to help and how much support they are prepared to give.  It's up to us to cultivate that goodwill and let people into our confidence.

When I was first diagnosed, I started sending update emails to my friends who are spread around the world.  It was therapeutic to write openly about what was happening to me and, before I knew it, the email list grew as more and more people asked to be included.   Normally I am a rather private person but I guess I was too caught up in the misery of the moment to realise quite what I was doing, though I did do a double-take when I announced I'd be having my breast cut off to an email list so long that I could hardly remember who was on it!   In any case, I did not intend to carry on once I was through the first few crazy weeks so, when I started chemo, I tried to draw my correspondence to a close.  I got back the resounding answer - don't stop! 

I realised that my emails involved people in my journey and helped them know that I needed and valued their support.  In fact, several have confided that my emails have helped them support other friends in similar situations, other cancer suffers who have not been able to be so candid.  People can't help you if they don't know what you are suffering through.

Give people a way in and they might surprise you.  So, next time a friend or neighbour makes an insensitive comment, bite back that acerbic reply and instead try and help them understand by being open and honest about your journey.  Involve them. Don't be too proud to accept support when it is offered - just be grateful.  Let them feel good about it! 

And if you really don't have people around you who can support you, turn to the internet.  There are many supportive groups formed in discussion forums.  Who said your support networks had to be with people you already know?

Don't sit back and wait for that supportive network to form around you.  Go out there and make it happen.  It might save your life.

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