Made this happen
‘My Best Friend Got Breast Cancer, And I Didn’t Know How To Deal With It’
The Debrief: When your best friend gets breast cancer you’re supposed to be her rock, so why did she end up looking after me?
Like any proper epic love story, ours started with a traumatic event. It was the first week of my first year at Manchester University and I was doing my best to look fun and interesting at the fresher’s mixer in a bar in the centre of town. The only problem was I was on my period and, unbeknownst to me after four jaeger bombs, I had started to leak all over the cream skater dress I was wearing. I hadn’t met Tara before, but when she came bowling over to me with an understanding look on her face, pummelled me into the toilet to give me a tampon and her plaid shirt to tie around my waist to hide the period stain, a deep bond was formed for life. We spent the rest of the evening drinking cheap Chardonnay out of the bottle and smoking fags in the loos and she managed to make a potentially harrowing evening not only ‘ok’ but really fucking great. That, dear reader, is the stuff that ‘forever’ is made of.
Seven years later, we like to say we’re best friends like Gordie (me) and Chris (her) from Stand by Me because that’s our favourite hangover film but, in truth, it really sums up our relationship because she’s always been the strong one, taking the lead and looking after me. Whether it’s nursing me through a broken heart or helping me write a CV, Tara has been the person I lean on and she’s taken my heavy load like the champion she is. That’s why it was such a catastrophic lurch to see that strong, dependable rock begin to crumble from the inside out.
Tara found a lump in her left breast when she was 25 years-old. Ever the responsible pragmatist, she didn’t bury her head in the sand and try to pretend it wasn’t happening like I would have done and booked herself straight into an appointment with her GP to arrange a mammogram. I told her it was probably nothing and that only five per cent of breast cancers occur in women under 40, but her doctor thought there was enough course for concern to operate, removing the lump to be tested. When the results came back, Tara’s worse fears were realised and she had breast cancer which, although it hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes, would require radio and chemotherapy and hormone therapy to treat. It took her three days to build up the courage to tell me because she was scared about worrying and upsetting me. Whenever I think about those three days she spent dealing with this alone it makes me feel sick with shame.
Whenever I think about those three days she spent dealing with this alone it makes me feel sick with shame.
Over the course of the next six months, Tara’s treatment was completely brutal. She developed painfully, angry-looking welts onto her breasts from the radiotherapy and the chemotherapy caused her long, blonde hair - always a source of pride for her - to fall out in clumps, and the chemo made her weight balloon. I watched completely hopelessly as my vibrant, silly, larger than life friend began to wilt under the strain of the cancer treatment - which looked worse than the disease itself - whilst she bravely took the whole thing in her stride. When her hair fell out, we went and bought ghetto fabulous wigs to wear out dancing. When she found out about her fertility, she froze her eggs. When she went from a size ten to a 16, she bought a push up bra and became all about the tits. Of course I was there the whole time, at least physically, to support her but behind closed doors I was falling apart. The prospect of her not making it through it was too suffocating for me to bear.
I also stopped going back to see my family because they wanted to talk to me about it when all I really wanted to do was bury my head in the sand.
The first thing I did was to cut out anybody else in my life apart from her. It started when my boyfriend said ‘she’ll be ok, I just know it’ in an attempt to reassure me in what was only an act of kindness and I completely blew up in his face. How the fuck could he know that, I screamed, he wasn’t a fucking doctor and neither me nor Tara needed his patronising nonsense in our lives. I stopped wanting him around because every time he looked at me I could sense he was worried about me and that just reminded me of what Tara was going through, so I stopped sleeping with him or responding to his messages and would take out my anger on him whenever the opportunity arose. Our relationship lasted five months after Tara’s diagnosis and it’s a testament to his kindness and understanding that he was able to hold on for that long. I was a complete bitch. I also stopped going back to see my family because they wanted to talk to me about it when all I really wanted to do was bury my head in the sand. It was hard for them too - Tara had been on five family holidays with us since we’d met - but I couldn’t see past my own worry and I didn’t think they had a right to bother me with their concern.
When I was with Tara, I was so conscious of not treating her like an invalid or victim that she found it difficult to talk about her illness with me. I tried to make everything seem just like normal - picking her up from hospital and taking her straight for a wine at the local pub - when of course things were anything but. A few months in, she had to take me to one side and ask me politely if she was able to talk me through what she was going through without me interrupting with ‘you’ll be fine!’ or ‘you’ve never looked better!’. I was so humiliated that she’d had to actually ask me that I began to slip into a deep depression, which led to some seriously self-destructive behaviour.
After my boyfriend broke things off, I totally spiralled - the first thing I did was down a bottle of whiskey. The next morning I was so hungover I could barely keep water down or move my head, but that didn’t stop me going out on another bender the following night.
I’d only ever drunk with friends before that, but something about the misery and debauchery of it suddenly seemed very appealing to me in the midst of Tara’s illness and for a month and a half I drank heavily on my own every day. Eventually, and inevitably, I lost my PR job. In hindsight, I think I was trying to put myself through an ounce of the pain and difficulty that Tara was experiencing, but when I told her what had happened, and in-between doctor’s appointments she got me a job in her brother’s bar so that I didn’t get behind on my rent. Even when she was at her weakest point physically, it was her that ended up looking after me. I was so ashamed and it was the shock that I needed to finally stand up to the plate and look after her like I should. From that point on, I never missed an appointment.
Tara has now been discharged from hospital and has the same chance of developing breast cancer again as any other woman in the country. Her hair has grown back and she looks like herself again - maybe even better than before. In two month’s time, it will be the eighth anniversary of our friendship and I’m going to cook her dinner to celebrate. After everything she’d been to, I think it’s about time I looked after her for a change.
If like our case study, you have a friend facing cancer, why not visit The Source to find tips on how to be there for them from people who’ve been there.
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As told to Sophie Cullinane - follow Sophie on Twitter @Sophiecullinane
Picture: Li Hui
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