Dear Captain Awkward,
Recently, an old friend began messaging me on social media to tell me that he had cancer. Initially, I was shocked to hear that he’d been diagnosed with (an unspecified) form of cancer. He’s the same age as I am (24) and, from what I’d seen when we were closer, led an active healthy life. I kept my replies polite and concerned. As the conversation progressed, he added more details about hospital visits, damage to his spine, how he was unable to walk and about how his parents were helping him with very basic functions. This was a lot more detail than I was comfortable with and the tone was beginning to shift to wanting me to pity him or to come back into his life.
To add some context, this is a friend who I spent time with during my first year of university, when I was 18. We dated briefly (maybe two months), but I chose to end the relationship and our friendship fizzled afterwards. Since the break-up, he has only initiated contact with me when he knows that I am single.
In our conversations, this friend has given me a lot of detail about how the cancer has impacted his life, but very few details on what type of cancer it is or what the prognosis is. He has told me that he doesn’t want to know how long he has to live and I respect his position. He has hinted that he wants us to meet and perhaps to restart some romantic activity. I’d be willing to meet, as a friend, to help support him, but I’m really uncomfortable with being asked on a date. With respect to the large amount of detail given to an old acquaintance, I understand that he’s facing a terrifying and traumatic life event and he’s looking for all of the support he can get.
What I’m asking is: is there a way to (very gently) sway him from passing along so much information and from trying to curry pity? I don’t really understand why he’s chosen to re-initiate contact after so many years, and with a very intimate level of detail. Also, am I completely insensitive for feeling awkward and uncomfortable with his messages? I mean, he has cancer. That certainly trumps my awkwardness, right?
Any scripts or tips?
Thank you very much,
Feeling Cancer Shamed
24 is indeed very young to have such an illness, but cancer does not discriminate, and an “active/healthy” life is not a magic shield.
This question is about how to be kind while maintaining one’s personal boundaries. If you do not want a close relationship with this person, and you definitely do not want to rekindle any kind of romance with this person, hold fast to this fact. It is a truth you can steer by in awkward waters.
Nobody wants to wear the t-shirt that says “I Pre-emptively Dumped a Terminally Ill Man. Ask Me How!” But nobody wants to wear the “I Said Yes To A Pity Date That I Now Dread With All My Soul And Now I Feel Like A Patronizing Jackass!” shirt, either.
The next time he makes romantic hints, here is your reply: “Friend, forgive me, but it sounds like you are hinting at asking me on a date or wanting something romantic to happen between us if we meet up. Am I understanding that correctly?“
He must now either admit his intentions or deny them.
If he denies? “No, no, I just meant in a friendly fashion.“
You say:”Well, that’s a relief, because I am not interested in you that way. I’m glad we cleared the air!”
If he admits it? You say, “Thank you for telling me outright where you stand. Sadly, I do not feel the same way, and I didn’t want to make any plans while that was unclear.”
Keep it short and subjective. “I don’t want….” “I don’t feel….”, etc., and don’t try to justify it beyond that.
So that’s one part of it. It will not feel good, but neither would the alternative Pity Date scenario. You can’t control his hopes, or his disappointment, but you can be honest about how you feel.
After you have this exchange, however it works out, take a few days off from communicating. If his primary motivation in reaching out to you is romantic/sexual, his communications might taper off. Or you might see a short burst of increased attempts to lock in your attention as he struggles with rejection. Give it a few days to settle down either way.
And in those few days do some hard thinking about what you want from this friendship and what you are willing to give…if anything. Once you have an idea of that in mind, you can start a very honest conversation with him. Either “When you reached out to me after all this time, what were you hoping would happen? (If romance, okay, that’s resolved. If Not Romance, then what?) I want to be supportive, but I am also unsure about the best way to do that. Is there something specific you’d like help with?” or “I am so sorry for what you are going through, but I do not think I can be the friend you need right now.”
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
I think, on some level, you question whether your former friend is being truthful. There is a mix of too much detail + not enough information (every detail is shared but the kind of cancer is a secret?)+ trying to get into your pants that feels….off somehow. I wish we could just laugh at the idea that anyone would do something like this, but, it happens, and one really creepy possibility I took from your letter is that his is the kind of cancer that will magically go into remission as soon as you come back into his bed.
As a teacher of college students, I am sometimes amazed at how the Angel of Death & Disaster knows to strike just when a major assignment is due. 99.99% of the time, the described terrible life event really happened, and the student is being truthful and honestly seeking help in readjusting deadlines. But I am also pretty sure I have been lied to at least once about stuff like this. Things that set off my Spidey senses:
- Too many details, which is a common flaw in lies and manipulation tactics. You’re invested in “selling” a version of the truth, so you oversell it.
- Communication goes all wonky – they either shame-hide, stop coming to class, stop responding to me and their group members, or they barrage me constantly with drafts and updates and unrealistic expectations around response times. There’s lots of shifting of blame, like, initially the assignment is late because grandmother died, but now it’s late because I did not IMMEDIATELY respond to a 2 a.m. question about how to do it.
- It’s part of a pattern, where there is a disaster *every time* an assignment is due. Which doesn’t mean the disaster or disasters aren’t real, but speaks to a “Ok, let’s figure out how to get you some support so you can have more of a cushion when disaster does strike so it doesn’t derail your education completely” plan.
None of these things by themselves are telling, and really the only thing to do in those situations is what you’re doing:
1) Take people at their word and treat everything like it’s real. (You, listening to your former friend, and having your first instinct to be supportive).
There is no downside to being kind and compassionate and believing someone who is hurting, and a lot of downside to throwing suspicion on them when they are most vulnerable.
To which I would add:
2) Loop in others in the community.
Confidentiality issues limit what I can do here, but saying “Hey, students, x hasn’t been in class this week or last week. If you’re friendly with them, can you make sure they get the notes?” means some friendly human who is not an authority figure will check on them. Also putting out feelers to student counseling, student advising, LGBTQ affairs, etc.
3) Create structure and boundaries around what happens next.
For example, if someone is missing assignments due to illness, death in family, or other crisis, what is a reasonable plan for getting it completed so that they learn what they need to learn and actually finish the course? Cool, let’s spell that out in writing, and let’s copy my boss on it, so that the expectations are clear, and so that if things are serious enough that a medical withdrawal or incomplete grade are needed then we have the structure in place to make it happen.
This way, the people who genuinely need help have as much support as possible, and the once-in-a-blue-moon person who thinks they have to lie to get an extension or support can maybe rethink that as a strategy while still saving face and being welcomed in the community.
So, I don’t think there is any value whatsoever in questioning your friend’s story… to him. Facing death is a pretty good & forgivable reason to ring up someone from the personal Booty: Greatest Hits Collection and see if another go is possible. Wanting someone to talk to in a time of crisis is not a crime and does not make you creepy.
But he if is really ill, depending on a reluctant person from his past as his sole confidant & emotional support doesn’t seem to be the likeliest way to get what he needs. So you are justified in:
Calling in mutual friends. You don’t have to know the kind of cancer to reach out to people you know in common and say “Have you talked to x lately? He is ill and in a pretty bad way from what I can tell, and I think it would cheer him up to hear from you.” Try to find people who live close and could visit him easily. And this way if you DO decide to visit, it doesn’t have to be one-on-one time, i.e., a date. Meet his family. Have a mini-school reunion.
This is one way you can satisfy those tingling spidey-senses. If he balks strongly at you having any contact with his folks, or balks at seeing old friends, etc. and insists on it being just the two of you (after you’ve had it out about romantic intentions), or wants you to keep the illness secret from mutual friends, it’s a sign (I’m sorry!) that not all is as it seems and you should maybe reconsider any kind of visit.
Calling in the (professional) cavalry. Suggestion that he talk to a counselor. Researching cancer support groups in his area. You can do this proactively (“This is a huge deal, and I want you to have every resource at your disposal!” “You mentioned feeling lonely & cut off, could something like this help?“) and reactively. When the level of detail & contact & sharing gets uncomfortable for you, it is okay to say “Friend, I really, really want you to be able to talk to someone who understands more about this. Please, please call (x services). I think I need to be Occasional Fun Distraction Friend for a while.“
Put a structure in place about how often you’ll talk/IM/message back and forth and stick to it. It’s okay to filter his messages a bit and deal with them when you can get to them. It’s okay to set up a Skype call every two weeks and ask him to save things up for then or tell him you’ll address whatever he sent you then. It is okay to set expectations about frequency & kind of communications that are okay with you.
He might be dying, which is awful to contemplate. Cancer, that fucking evil shitbeast, means that he might be “dying” for a very long time. If you decide to stay in this guy’s life, set yourself up for a marathon and not a sprint from crisis to crisis that all require your immediate response and attention.
And again, if he balks at these limits and insists on Now Now Now and guilts and shames you for not giving him exactly what he wants when he wants it, here there be Trouble, and it is a sign to distance yourself.
Above all, be honest about what you are prepared to do. When a friend describes their illness and you say “That’s too heavy for me, man” and bail, it’s impossible not to feel guilty. Sick people didn’t choose to be sick, and it’s not fair to add “You’re bumming me out man” to their already heavy load. I mean, this is basic human decency stuff, right?
But we have limits. And this guy isn’t actually your friend. If he weren’t sick, would you want him in your life? At all? Whatever else is going on, this guy severely miscalculated the depth of your friendship. You have the extremely unenviable choice of giving reluctant support or setting him straight about that miscalculation. If “I am sorry for your trouble, but I cannot be the friend you need” is the bald truth, you may have to tell him that. You have choices, so make sure that you offer what you offer freely. Whatever you decide, it is okay to carve out boundaries about what you can and cannot offer. Romance = no. Sex = no. Instant, constant emotional support via social media whenever he downloads on you = no. A friendly chat every few weeks? Rallying other friends to his side? Encouraging him to seek a variety of resources to help him through this? Definitely maybe.