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#534: Cancer support or pity dating?

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

Dear 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.

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105 comments
  1. I’m going to chime in with the Captain here and admit I am deeply suspicious that this friend may not be telling the truth about his cancer. I’ve had personal experience with an ex who would fabricate medical problems (and yes, I’m 100% certain they were fabricated) because she seemed to thrive on the attention that gave her, and it also defused tension between us by making me feel too guilty to leave. She would also use these problems to seek attention and sympathy from friends. I am not saying it’s absolutely certain that LW’s friend is doing this, but it’s sadly not unheard of behavior, and I recommend caution and skepticism.

    What I don’t recommend is confrontation on that level. For one thing, it would be incredibly awful to be confronted with that suspicion if the friend does indeed have cancer. For another, if it’s true that the cancer is fake, the friend is very unlikely to admit it, and VERY likely to use a hurt, angry-looking reaction as a way to garner yet more sympathy.

    I think the Captain’s advice is very solid, and I especially think it’s crucial to look at who else your friend is talking to- is there any public acknowledgment of the disease? Any other friends seem to be active in his life? Encourage him to talk to others about it too, and if he refuses, that is also a red flag. You haven’t been particularly close- there’s no reason you should be the one special person he can talk to, unless it’s meant to flatter and manipulate you.

    Sorry this is such blunt and suspicious advice, but if the friend is the sort of person I suspect he is, he is incredibly toxic to get involved with and you must be careful. Take care of yourself!

  2. Badsack said:

    I have faced two cancer scares in twenty years, and it is scary, scary stuff. I am the type of person who researched all the possibilities of what I was facing, for my own sanity – so I could name the what’s what, potential treatment options, outcomes, etc. – for my own sake, as well as for conversations with doctors. I appreciate not everyone is like this…but…??? I felt it was really important to name the maybe cancers I was facing – both gynecological – as I refused to be shamed by old fashioned secrecy about my body. I do understand that not everyone feels the same way, and that people do have shame issues about things like colorectal cancer, testicular cancer, etc. that can affect their sexual functioning or have new things like colostomy bags that can feel mortifying.

    It seems…odd…that this guy has never named the cancer he allegedly suffering from. He sounds like he is very specifically describing the profound impact this cancer is having on his life. On his social media, are there any links to any cancer support or research groups, or other people currently dealing with cancer, or cancer discussions ? Are his other facebook friends asking about his cancer, health, symptoms ? It also seems telling that the only times he has contacted you have been when you are single.

    I do see some red flags fluttering here. He might really have cancer, and feel alone and freaked out and his body seems at war with himself, and he is reaching out for support anywhere. I can totally appreciate that. The weeks I spent waiting for a referral, treatment, biopsy, pathology results made me feel on the very brink of sanity, and very scared, sad, weak, and somewhat prone to oversharing, as though spreading out my anxiety could make it less intense. I almost felt like I owed people an explanation about why I seemed so off – if I did. I know how I felt during the waiting time made me feel far off balance. I did not want anyone to think my weirdness was about them. The news I did not have cancer made me feel completely deflated, and knocked down – even though it was the best news and a big relief. The stress spent waiting, and all the what ifs were brutal.

    BUT – there are also some very horrible, horrible cancer fakers, who have faked it themselves, or faked their children in the public eye for long periods of time. Many of the fakers brought to public scrutiny are scammers who received donations. Some are awful fakers who had an entire online cancer persona going, who were in conversation with other genuine cancer patients, who were engaged in this fraud for some sort of pathological ego gratification. There may be other fakers who are never brought to the light of day, since the people who encouraged and supported these people probably feel tricked and humiliated – but may not be out any money, etc. that could result in legal actions.

    I would hesitate to get any more involved with this person unless you want to. If he has cancer, this doesn’t make him a better, more likeable person. It makes him the same person he always was, with a cancer.

    If your intuition is tingling, heed that.

    • The nameless part sets off major flags for me too. People inexperienced with cancer tend to treat it as a monolith…cancer is cancer is cancer.

      But once you’ve had a close encounter with it, either for yourself or a loved one, you very quickly come to understand that ‘cancer’ is just the start of the question. What kind? What stage? What are the treatment options? Are clinical studies being done that might be of help?

      I used to run into this all the time as a vet tech. People would hear cancer and immediately declare they didn’t want any treatment for their pet because it wouldn’t be fair. It was a struggle to make them understand that cancer isn’t always lethal, the treatments aren’t always awful (especially since animals don’t tend to suffer from the same side effects), and that you shouldn’t make a decision without knowing all of the facts. ‘Cancer’ is like a bogey man to many people…they hear the word and they go straight to fight or flight mode.

      Point being…just ‘cancer’ is mighty suspicious to me, because people who have it know it’s never ‘just’ anything.

      • J. Preposterice said:

        re: the pet thing. My mom had two pets with cancer.

        One was a youngish dog with an easily-removed skin cancer; the dog lived another 6 years with only that initial surgical treatment.

        The other was an old dog (the dog of my heart, whose loss I’ve never gotten over) with advanced intestinal cancer. She lived only another few months; my mom opted to keep her drugged to the gills on narcotics and feed her all the ham salad she’d eat (her favorite food). When she stopped being interested in ham salad, it was time to let her go.

        Always find out which end of that cancer spectrum your pet is on, is my advice. You might not be able to afford the quick treatment if that’s what your pet needs — but you might, and if it’s all your pet needs to return to a long healthy life, hoorah!

        • Xenophile said:

          “Always find out which end of that cancer spectrum your pet is on, is my advice. You might not be able to afford the quick treatment if that’s what your pet needs — but you might, and if it’s all your pet needs to return to a long healthy life, hoorah!”

          +1. Cancer is diverse and so are its prognoses. My 4-year old cat was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and the vet told me he had 2-3 months to live. He died three weeks later. In contrast, my 10-year old cat was diagnosed with cancer and the vet said she could live “3 weeks, or 3 years, it’s impossible to tell which.” That was four years ago. The cancer has metastasized and she has a lump on her back the size of a golfball, but she has lots of energy and a healthy appetite, is fully mobile and still tries to boss around the dogs. (Unsucessfully, but she does successfully boss around humans.) Medical needs don’t have to be the end of a relationship with a beloved pet.

        • Always find out which end of that cancer spectrum your pet is on, is my advice. You might not be able to afford the quick treatment if that’s what your pet needs — but you might, and if it’s all your pet needs to return to a long healthy life, hoorah!

          That’s what was so hard to get people to understand. They’d hear ‘cancer’ and they’d just shut down and assume the absolute worst. It got even harder if they had a relative who had cancer, because then they were carrying a lot of assumptions about treatment and side effects that weren’t valid.

          Even speaking about themselves, I hear people declare things like “If I ever got cancer, I won’t go through chemo or do any treatment.” Really? Even if you had a 90% chance of being cured? Even if if the only treatment was removing a lump that hadn’t yet spread?

          My female cat was diagnosed with multiple tumors in her brain with a MRI. She was bleeding into her brain stem at the time of diagnosis. There was no viable treatment at that stage…we could have tried chemo, but it was likely to only give her a few more weeks at most, and even then had only a 50/50 chance of helping at all. We opted for heavy pain control, then euthanized when it became clear she was suffering.

          But if the situation had been different, and chemo could have given her another year or two? I’d have done it without blinking. Get all the facts, consider all the factors, THEN make your decision…that applies to our own health care as well as our pet’s. I completely get why hearing cancer terrifies people…hell, I removed my cat’s eye because there was a 10-15% chance he could develop sarcoma. But medical decisions should never be made in haste or based on assumptions.

      • SarahTheEntwife said:

        “Bonce you’ve had a close encounter with it, either for yourself or a loved one, you very quickly come to understand that ‘cancer’ is just the start of the question. What kind? What stage? What are the treatment options? Are clinical studies being done that might be of help?”

        Absolutely this. I actually feel kind of weird sometimes admitting that I’ve had cancer, because I had pretty much the least scary form possible. I had various tests, and a couple months of being really scared about the possibilities, and then they removed my thyroid, which is remarkably easily replaced by tiny blue pills, and I don’t have cancer anymore. I still have to get yearly checkups, but the chance of a recurrence is vanishingly small. But as soon as I say “cancer” rather than any of the other reasons I might have had my thyroid removed, people get all panicky.

        • I’m going to ditto you, because I had the same thing. It’s *possible* to die from thyroid cancer, but like you I just had mine out and some iodine. And even though they took the whole thyroid, it was entirely confined to the tumor on the right lobe.

          So yeah, I say “well I had cancer but not like … SCARY cancer.” I’m not belittling it, because it was scary for me, but compared to my father’s 3-year battle with myeloma (which he sadly lost this past June) I don’t feel like it was much of a thing.

          • Ali said:

            My sister in law had surprise cancer: she had her thyroid out for other reasons and the post-surgery pathology found it was cancerous. Best kind to have, I think

      • +1000
        I have had several friends with different kinds of cancer, and they have all been incredibly honest about WHAT the cancer is, so those of us who want to can read about their expected treatments and prognosis.
        One had melanoma that was removed in her local doctors office and simply means she needs a mole map and bloodtests done every 12 months for basically ever, another had scary and recurring cancer that made her very sick but had a a high rate of clearance (and she is now clear), and a third has the kind where we are actively waiting for a death notice with this relapse as she is so sick she has been denied treatment because it has a less than 1% success / survival rate.
        So yeah, cancer is scary, but not all cancers are scary.

  3. Phira said:

    I think that the Captain’s last point, that this guy isn’t really a friend anymore, is a good one. Something rumbling around in my brain while I was reading this post was, “People get sick. If he’s not your friend, and he’s sick, you don’t owe him a friendship.”

    I also have to say YES THANK YOU for the analogy and examples regarding dealing with college students. I deal with this all the time with college students, and it’s the same murky, “I’m not sure if you’re lying/exaggerating and I’m not going to claim you are.” I treat those situations by coming up with a solution that I feel okay with IF the student is lying AND if the student is not lying. That means providing suggestions/solutions that would be legitimately helpful if the student is indeed facing that tough situation, but that also don’t constitute a “free pass” if the student is taking advantage of me.

    The same can be applied to situations like this one, and to any other situation where you have a friend who you suspect is stretching the truth (or making something up). The free pass in this case is catering to this person’s wishes–agreeing to meet up with him when he wants to, or restarting a romantic relationship. The Captain provides great examples of legitimately helpful solutions if he’s NOT lying: providing him with resources, for example.

    Finally, I am NOT suggesting that you meet up with this person and/or date him again, but if he truly is making his illness up, you would probably be able to tell very soon after you reenter his life. Speaking as someone who has dealt with her own chronic illness and who has had friends and family members deal with serious illnesses, including cancer, it’s often very difficult (if not impossible) to hide aspects of illness or treatment. I tried keeping my illness under wraps from a LOT of people, including my partner, his family, my friends, and my graduate program. It was impossible.

    • iseeshiny said:

      “if he truly is making his illness up, you would probably be able to tell very soon after you reenter his life”

      I… don’t know that that is necessarily true. I am still shuddering after reading the article on Munchausen’s by Internet the Captain linked, in which a perfectly physically healthy nineteen-year-old got friends to change her (unnecessary) adult diaper.

      • Phira said:

        Yeah, which is why I said probably. After I commented, I read the article and was really surprised at how easily “Alex” was able to fool friends.

    • “I tried keeping my illness under wraps from a LOT of people, including my partner, his family, my friends, and my graduate program. It was impossible.

      This is also not true. I managed to keep my own chronic illness hidden from my parents for months (caving when I needed to stop working), and the rest of my family and most of my friends for nearly a year. Depending on the visibility of an illness, it is very much possible. Not necessarily a good idea, but possible. Sorry I’m being That Person because I’ve had people finding out now I’ve been sick for about a year giving me some serious side eye because I’ve managed to hide it from so many people for so long because many people do think it’s just not possible.

      That said, if the dude LW is talking about is being as forth coming with how cancer is impacting him, it seems less likely that he’ll try to hide it, and cancer (unlike my own illness) tends to be fairly visible once treatment starts.

      • Phira said:

        I should have been clearer: it was impossible *for me* to hide my illness.

      • Season said:

        Wow. So a person makes a statement about what they did in their own life with regards to their own illness, and you come at them with “This is not true.” What kind of nonsense is that? It was true FOR HER, and she was not making a blanket statement about what is true for other people. Way to make it all about you, though.

        • Given this “you would probably be able to tell very soon after you reenter his life” being the lead in to their story, it’s not hard to see why people would want to clarify. Especially when, as Erika says, people believing it’s impossible to hide can be actively harmful to people with chronic illnesses.

          Definitely not trying to have a go at you BTW Phira, I know you clarified above. :)

          • Also given the story by the OP – it clearly states that the former friend is claiming the cancer is having all sorts of major impacts on him.
            Hopefully, it should be obvious how true these claims are fairly quickly.

    • On the flip side, a lot of people dealing with chronic diseases have good days and bad days. Catch them on a good day, and you’d think nothing was wrong at all. I know very little about the various types of cancer, but I’d bet the same principle applies.

      • You know, my father was like this. If you didn’t look at his test results, you’d hardly think he was sick at all. In fact, his primary doctor left standing orders that all treatments were to be based solely on labwork and never on self-reported symptoms. I attribute this to my father’s incredible stubbornness, but he never seemed to have any of the expected or typical symptoms. At one point the lab results showed he was in total kidney failure … but he was totally asymptomatic the entire time.

        He was cheerful, sarcastic, funny, and energetic almost right to the end. It was very hard to tell how he was actually doing for this reason. We knew his prognosis was terminal, but it was only a few days before he passed away that he actually seemed that ill.

    • Solestria said:

      “I think that the Captain’s last point, that this guy isn’t really a friend anymore, is a good one. Something rumbling around in my brain while I was reading this post was, “People get sick. If he’s not your friend, and he’s sick, you don’t owe him a friendship.” ”

      This is what I was thinking, too. LW, it sounds like the primary reason you are considering any friendship with this guy is because he says he is sick, and you feel that obligates you to support him. It does not, and he can have totally legitimate cancer and you can still bow out from being the Major Support Person he seems to have decided you should be to him. Backing off to distant sympathy on public social media posts may be as much as you want to do, and that can be okay, and he can get major support from people who mutually choose friendship with him.

      So how much involvement do you want in his life, regardless of what you think is right?

  4. turtle said:

    great advice!

    I’ll add (because I can so see myself doing it) that you don’t want the “I won’t go on a date with him, but I feel bad rejecting him, so I will refrain from asking his intentions, drag things out indefinitely, and feel shitty about it the whole time,” t-shirt either.

    It’ll be horribly awkward, but it’ll feel better once you proactively deal with it in some way. (pretty common theme in this blog, huh.)

  5. mythbri said:

    No kind of lifestyle, however healthy or active, can be a magic shield against cancer. I definitely empathize with LW’s surprise at hearing the news, though, because I was shocked when my step-dad was diagnosed with AML. Just a month after his diagnosis, he passed away. That kind of accelerated illness, from zero to dying in just a short time frame, is so scary as to seem unbelievable.

    LW, it sucks that this guy has cancer. I hope that everything goes well for him. I hope he has the support he needs to get through it. But as awful as his situation is, the “cancer card” can’t be used to manipulate you into something you don’t want, and especially something that will end badly for both of you. If you chose to end a relationship with him once, no amount of cancer is going to fix whatever was wrong in the first place.

    Offer him whatever support you are comfortable with, but don’t be guilted into going any further.

    • Okay, brief tangent: “Playing the cancer card” reminds me of my old roommate. She had thyroid cancer- thankfully not serious, they removed her thyroid and she was fine. Afterwards, she used to “play the cancer card” in very melodramatic, humorous ways- “C, can you take out the trash?” *pulls turtleneck down to reveal scar, large mournful puppy eyes* “But I had CANCER.” Ah, memories.

      • JenniferP said:

        Your roommate sounds hilarious and great. I love her from afar.

  6. I think there’s a few warning signs here that he’s out to milk you for pity, but he may not even be aware he’s doing it. I lost my mum last year – she died gruesomely and slowly from a smoking-related illness – and the grief made me act very strangely and illogically at times. Could well be what’s going on here. Still – I think the Captain’s advice is very sound. Figure out what he wants, and then figure out if you’re happy with that or not. Set decent boundaries and stick with them.

  7. Gine said:

    While I’ve never had to deal with a former flame/friend with a serious illness, I have had lots of them try to get back in touch with me, with lots of hints and tentative flirting, after long periods of mutual radio silence. I second the notion that gently asking for clarification is the right way to go–otherwise it can go on and on, because they’ll dance around it for as long as you let them. I usually say something along the lines of “I’m sorry if I’m misreading the situation, but just so we’re on the same page, I’m (not interesting in a romantic connection, seeing someone else, etc.).”

    Some of them have gotten very defensive and insisted that of COURSE they weren’t aiming for a hookup, HOW could I THINK such a thing!!!??? Others replied politely, reassuring me that that wasn’t their intention…and then never messaged me again.

    Honestly, there wasn’t a single one that really just wanted to get back in touch as just friends–but like I said, none of them were facing a serious illness; that’s definitely a more complicated situation. But I think your caution is justified, and the Captain’s advice is spot-on.

  8. I know that this post is not primarily about working with students, but as someone who also teaches undergraduates, I just wanted to say that I found your discussion of how to handle students in crisis to be spot-on and really helpful.

    • peregrinations said:

      Seconded.

    • Sarah G. said:

      Thirded. I teach middle school.

    • Liyana said:

      And as someone who was a college student in serious crisis (death in the family during my last semester), this is exactly what I wish all of my professors had done for me. Particularly the “set boundaries and expectations for the future, laying the groundwork for withdrawal or incomplete if necessary.” Because it definitely continued to be an issue for a lot longer than the initial week I’d asked for allowances in, and I could really have used a better back-up plan than “well, I just blasted all of those deadlines into smithereens…I guess now I turn things in 2 months late and pray that they give me enough points to let me pass this class??”

      Somehow, I managed to get it together at the eleventh hour and graduate (because I had some extraordinarily lenient and forgiving professors), but looking back, I could really have used someone sitting me down and saying, “This is what needs to happen, and if you can’t manage that, you have some options.”

      Which is not to say that some of my professors didn’t handle it well, because some of them were absolutely fantastic about it! But in a couple of cases, some more structure would have been good for us both.

  9. hypatia said:

    I feel a lot better about mostly only hearing back from exes who want tech support, hehe

    • I wish there was a like button for comments like this :)

  10. CL said:

    The vibe I’m getting is that the LW doesn’t want to resume this friendship at all. The messages are making her uncomfortable, and she doesn’t understand why he got back in touch after so many years. She senses that he has only ever been interested in dating her, not in friendship with her (which seems right, based on her account). She describes herself as “willing” to meet with him “to support him” because he has cancer. But when CA asks, “If he weren’t sick, would you want him in your life? At all?” — my guess (which could be wrong!) is that the answer will be no.

    If this is the case, I wouldn’t offer to rally friends or have weekly chats. I think it’s okay to gently tell him, as CA suggests, “I cannot be the friend you need.” They haven’t been friends for five years — that means she has no obligation toward him regardless of what he’s going through. Cancer is horrible, but it doesn’t trump her wishes, if she doesn’t want any sort of relationship with him.

    I think that he is unlikely to dial it back, if she proposes limited communication. He is already ignoring her hints, over-sharing, and suggesting romance. He wants something from her that she can’t reciprocate, and that means this will ultimately be unhealthy for both of them.

    I also think LW should view this as the kind course of action. He’s going through something terrible — getting emotionally invested in a relationship with someone who can’t reciprocate his feelings isn’t good for him. He should be reaching out to his real friends, and perhaps making new friends, not spending so much energy hoping that an ex will agree to date him again. It’s only going to end in disappointment, and that’s not what he needs. It might feel cruel, but letting him down now is the kind thing to do.

    • Solestria said:

      Seconding all of this!

  11. ThatHat said:

    This isn’t so much helpful, at all, as just an observation, but was anyone else reminded of Daisy’s predicament with William in Downton Abbey? The boy who was sweet on her was going off to war, and even though she wasn’t interested in him, other people pushed her to be nice to him and “give him something to live for” and it was just completely awful.

    It was a well-written problem, but boy I had trouble watching that scene, because it did a good job of capturing just how easy it is, especially for women, to feel obligated into making someone in dire circumstances happy at the expense of your own happiness and a quiet little lie. It’s such an easy trap to fall into, even if you go in with your eyes wide open and knowing you Don’t Want This Thing.

    I’d be oh-so-wary, LW. I think especially that if I went to visit him, I would arrange to never be alone, bringing in either a mutual friend or family members.

    • Anonymous This Time said:

      ThatHat, I think it’s very helpful. From the letter LW has had only minimal contact with this person for 5 years, and only when he knows she is single. They are not friends and if he hadn’t contacted her? All would be fine with LW, it’s the guilt LW feels for not being able to be all there for the guy that is a problem. I think LW does feel some obligation but it feels awful to tell him she can’t be all that for him.

      I don’t immediately think he’s lying or using her because I know that if I were in the guys position I’d probably reach out to anyone who mattered to me in my life. Not a stretch to think I’d call those I’d lost touch with so I could talk to them again and maybe go down some memory lane. But, if LW FEELS like something is wrong, she should trust the feeling and disengage, she is not responsible for the guys life or happiness as he faces death. It may sound cold but it’s really not, they do not know one another any more, his support should come from the people in his life who know him.

    • I even felt okay about a few white lies to William only to break it up after the war, but I found it pretty strange afterwards that the others kept explaining to her that she didn’t even lie, there is no difference between pitying him and and being in love, she flirted with him, married him so she was in love with him. And Violet’s manipulative evasion of the issue like “You didn’t LIKE him?” “Yes, I liked him…” “So you were in love with him” :/ But interestingly, nobody told Matthew the same about Lavinia.

  12. Just Plain Neddy said:

    One thing that can give an indication of truthfulness is definitely whether the bad news happens to coincide with a time when the person wants leverage to manipulate. If he suddenly gets much more sick when you turn him down for a date that’s a big red flag. I know someone who was apparently suffering from cancer (again at a young age) and everyone rallied round despite the fact that little details didn’t really add up. Then she went into remission until the point when her partner broke up with her when the cancer suddenly returned full force, and it wasn’t worth going through any additional treatment because she didn’t want to go on without this partner and was just going to slink off and die. I think said partner had pretty much figured out what was going on and in any case didn’t respond to the emotional blackmail and they never got back together. As the months and then years went by it has become a bit difficult to say “hang on – weren’t you supposed to be dying a while back?” so I think everyone just kinda avoids the subject. There is a bit of me that wants to yell BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CANCER? at her but I don’t really know her well enough to do so. Really weird situation.

    • wonderbink said:

      Sounds like my little brother’s ex-girlfriend. She was a chronic pathological liar and she went to all the trouble to fake cancer–shaved her head, had people drive her to the hospital, the works. It wasn’t until after my brother dumped her that I found out for certain that she’d been bullshitting the whole time. (I had my doubts, but she always had Perfectly Reasonable Explanations for those doubts.)

      • Laughing Giraffe said:

        I witnessed the destruction of a relationship when an ex reappeared claiming to be dying, like totally for sure, and begged my friend’s then-partner for “one last time”. My friend and the partner were already on the rocks, due in part to her not having sex with him because of lingering issues around this guy (who, by all accounts, had treated her like horseshit). As my friend pointed out, it’s one thing to tell the person who loves you and treats you well and wants you to be safe, “I’m sorry, I can’t go to bed with you, it’s too hard for me,”; it’s another to say, “But I will make an exception and swallow my pain and tolerate it, not for you, but for the person who gave me those scars in the first place”. The relationship was probably doomed anyway, but the arrival of the ex just added a great big pile of pain on top of that. Also, as far as I know, Mr. Manipulator is still alive and kicking, though I don’t know if my friend’s ex ever went through with his request.

  13. That’s a lot of info to give you after several years of no contact. How are you dealing with this? Do you have someone to talk to? (If he tries to forbid you from talking about it with others, that’s a huge red flag.)

    There’s nothing quite like getting diagnosed with a Big Disease to shake you out of a rut and get new priorities. Maybe he’s been looking for a reason to contact you for a while. Perhaps it’s easier for him to talk to you, a relative stranger, than to bring this up with someone closer. That could be it. Or… and I’m not saying that I’m right, but it’s almost like he’s favor/friendship-sharking you. It seems like a lot of forced intimacy out of the blue.

    But again, maybe he’s just needing to talk to someone he has fond memories of. Nothing wrong with that. He certainly needs help but that doesn’t have to come from you. It looks like he’s got a system in place for that already. If you’re gonna be in it for the long haul it’s good to pace yourself. It’s perfectly fine to be more comfortable as a ”Hey, look at this cute lolcat”-friend than auditioning for the role of his sexual healer. (And what pressure _ that_ would put on you.)

  14. There is a possibility that the cancer is of a kind that he finds embarrassing to name. Testicular cancer for example. That may be the reason for lots of details instead of naming it. Just a thought.
    The advice is excellent. There were reasons you did not stay in touch after you stopped dating. Those reasons likely still apply.

    • I had the same kind of thought. Although cancer is usually something people are sympathetic to, lung cancer for example is stigmatized. A friend of mine’s father passed away from lung cancer and she often feels like she like has to follow-up that information with the fact that he never smoked (although no one deserves cancer, cancer is awful). (Also: I am certainly not saying this is the most likely scenario what with all the other details that are happening.)

      • tired of something said:

        Agreed. It does not negate any of this good advice! But there are lots of cancers that are stigmatized (rectal, or if he was born intersex it becomes difficult to acknowledge ovarian cancer – an unusual situation, but it has happened). My ex had a close relative who died of lung cancer and it was a huge family secret because she smoked and they were ashamed – no one outside of immediate relatives knew the specific type of cancer she had.

      • Jenna said:

        My late husband’s cancer was in his lungs and liver in addition to elsewhere, and so many people asked if he smoked or drank. I became rather annoyed and somewhat angry, eventually. I have added that question to the list of things that I will never, ever ask about a cancer patient. I am not their doctor, and it is none of my business.

        • acr said:

          I think that so often, we try to follow the normal conversation procedures when somebody shares something painful with us, b/c we don’t know what to do. Many times it’s not out of malice or cruelty, but not thinking. A conversation goes: Person A shares something. Person B asks some kind of follow-up question to indicate they were listening to Person A. This normally works. A “I saw a movie last night.” B: “What movie did you see?” But in cases of bad news, it doesn’t work. A: “My mother just died.” B: “What did she die of?” (not good)

          I think that advice columns and forums have really made me a much better person, because now I don’t flounder as much. It’s okay to say, “Wow, that is awful.” It’s also okay to say, “That is really awful. I don’t know what else to say. I am so sorry that happened to you.” I don’t have to scramble to find magic words to make them feel better, b/c there are no magic words. My empathy with their pain is what can help.

  15. the-fisher-queen said:

    The moment I started reading this I got 2 distinct vibes:
    1. LW doesn’t really want this relationship at all, whether “Brian” (just giving him a name for convenience) is sick/ill/dying or not. He’s making her uncomfortable with the amount and intensity of the contact. They drifted apart a number of years ago, and he only contacts LW *when she’s single*. He doesn’t pay her a thought when she’s “Taken”, probably, except to go “hmmm I wonder if LW is single?”
    That screams “Are you desperate enough to be my booty call” all over it.
    That’s not something that started when Brian “got cancer”. That’s a pattern over several years. This guy sounds a lot like a user. Users are not friends.
    LW feels sucked in and forced in by pity (that may or may not be justified) which is no foundation for a properly supportive friendship (or relationship). That just leads to resentment.

    2. Even before I got to the Captain’s answer, my immediate thought was “this guy sounds like he’s faking it and lying.” The lack of detail about *really important* bits of information could be embarrassment.
    (But really, if Brian spends all this time detailing every little thing, to this person he expects to support him, why wouldn’t he be comfortable saying what sort of cancer he has? It’s fine not to tell the general public, but not telling someone you’re that intimately connected with?)
    But it could be a tactic to keep LW hooked in.
    “I won’t tell you my prognosis” could really be “If I don’t tell you when I’m supposed to die you’ll stick around forever”.
    This is miiiiiighty suspicious to me.

    LW, if you don’t want to hang around “Brian”, you don’t have to. Even if he is sick. Even if he is dying. Hanging around because you feel pressured will leave you faking support. That’s bad. It will leave you feeling upset, angry, and resentful. If Brian really is dying, that’s no way to treat a dying person (i.e. dishonestly). If he is stringing you along, congrats — you aren’t being strung along any more.

    • Mary said:

      “I won’t tell you my prognosis” could also mean that he doesn’t know it. When my mum was diagnosed with cancer, the doctors were very clear that they wouldn’t do “we give you six months”. They told her that the median survival rate for this type of cancer was 10 months, but that “my doctors have given me a year to live” was more for TV and films than real life. Or, quite frankly, that he does know and doesn’t want to share. He is 100% within his rights to share and withhold whatever medical information he wants to.

      I totally get where everyone is coming from with the suspicion that he’s lying, but there are totally normal explanations for all the gaps in information. I feel like there is a bit of a desire to suspect him because that will make it more OK for the LW to disengage without guilt. But *the ex does not have to be lying about his cancer for it to be OK to disengage*. He also doesn’t have to be being deliberately manipulative for it to be OK to disengage. He can have real, awful, disgusting, miserable, life-ending cancer, and be trying to deal with it in the fairest and word-using ways possible, and it’s still OK for the LW to disengage. The focus on discrepancies is misplaced, I think.

      But LW, if you think there is a possibility that your ex is lying, You Aren’t Friends. If you’re looking at someone and you aren’t sure whether they’d lie to you about having terminal cancer, there is already an absence of trust in that relationship which makes friendship impossible. That doesn’t make you a terrible person, it just means that you don’t trust him and you can’t be a good friend to him.

      It’s not actually relevant whether he’s lying or telling the truth: if there is any part of you that thinks he might be the kind of person who would lie about having cancer to manipulate you, then this relationship is broken, and the kindest thing you can do is step back.

      • JenniferP said:

        “But LW, if you think there is a possibility that your ex is lying, You Aren’t Friends.”

        In bald terms, there it is. You aren’t friends. Withdraw.

      • Erika said:

        “But LW, if you think there is a possibility that your ex is lying, You Aren’t Friends.”

        I wish this response could be moved to the top and highlighted and underlined. It’s short and sweet and eloquent and gives you all the information you need to deal with the situation.

      • Old Dan Tucker said:

        This is brilliant. Seconded.

  16. I just wanted to add that I used to work for a person with a chronic, debilitating illness, and one of the things I had to learn while working there is yes, people who are ill deserve compassion, but that does not mean that being ill means that you might not be a manipulative person. My former employer was particularly good at using guilt to get me to do things that were not in my job description and made me uncomfortable.

    So your friend may be legitimately ill. But he still may be a manipulator also. I think the clue here is that the LW seems to be expressing some guilt – and it sounds like the sick friend may be (in part, at least) leveraging guilt by giving her lots of details about his suffering.

    My experience with my sick employer was she had an intense fear of abandonment, and so used guilt to influence others to her needs. I think it came in part from her own attachment style – she was very, very attachment-anxious, which led her to being very clingy in some ways. Which sometimes, when I was dealing with compassion fatigue, led me to be attachment-avoidant – not a good cycle. LW’s Sick Friend may be experiencing some of the same things, and leading him to cling harder – maybe by pushing/implying something romantic because he hopes that will mean LW will not abandon him. And he may see LW setting boundaries as abandoning – my former employer sure did. She also conflated boundaries with love, or more accurately, having no boundaries meant you loved/cared about someone, when I think they are really about respect. I can love/care about someone and respect their boundaries. And I learned to say things like, “I care about you but I am unwilling to do (specific thing).” And there would be tears, and guilt trips.

    I think the Captain’s advice is spot on – but I’d expand it concerning the question,”Is there something specific I can help you with?” If he is legitimately ill, he may be reaching out to the LW in part because his close community is demanding he be sick but also manage their emotions because they don’t like/can’t handle being sick, and with her not being close, he feels like he can vent/be vulnerable. So questions like ,”Is there something I can do?” sometimes just add to the burden of managing another person, even one who really wants to help. For a sick person, actually setting boundaries by making specific offers can actually be helpful – “Can I do this specific thing (make dinner/contact support groups/find you a website of funny cartoons, etc) for you?”

    It means he doesn’t have to manage you or “find” something for you to do to feel helpful (not that the LW was expressing that urge, but some Sick Friend’s community may, and those people can be exhausting). It also allows you to establish the role, “I am willing to do this specific thing within these specific boundaries.” (although I think that last part plays in the Ask/Guess culture of the previous post, so if he’s not guessing, you may have to be more specific, using the Captain’s script.).

    • M Dubz said:

      A world of yes to this. I can’t help but feeling like, even if the dude in this letter is scared, he and the letter writer are both better off if his support network is acting out of genuine love and concern rather than a feeling of obligation because CANCER. And it sounds like there is no emotional investment here such that the letter writer wouldn’t be acting out of a sense of guilt and obligation, because the dude never bothered to build that with her. She should do exactly as much as she can do from a place of genuine caring, and let his friends/ loved ones do the rest.

  17. Jarissa said:

    I agree with everybody about this guy raising some flags in how he’s using his putative cancer as a tool to get attention. At the same time, I would like to raise a hesitant hand on the topic of sharing some details but not others.

    I was diagnosed a year ago today.
    I’m an introvert. I really, really, REALLY like my privacy, you know? It takes so much effort, like pushing a sack full of wet towels up an incline, to make Serious Times emotional connections. I have to deal with my vulnerability, with the other person’s vulnerability, and just ugh! I’d rather scrub the litter box. Or go have chemotherapy.

    So once I had enough facts to share solid information – that took a couple weeks – I told my entire circle of friends at once that I had cancer, stage 2, and an upcoming operation. I told them how I expected my schedule to impact our usual activities. I told them that if I got emotionally wonky, please say something to me, because it might be a sign the meds need adjusted. And then I said that from then on, my medical condition was not to be described using the C word, that instead I had Mysteriously Dramatic Victorian Fainting Malady.

    My friends are awesome. (My extended family were … not so much awesome, in the coping department.)

    I think they eventually figured out what kind of cancer I had from context, but I did not tell them just like I did not tell my in-laws. I still have to already be angry about some related topic to give that information out. I’ll tell you chemo sucks, I’ll tell you about ditz-brain, I’ll even tell you about my hair problems and my hydration problems.

    But I do not owe anybody the words “interfering ductal carcinoma”. Even if I’m telling them the other stuff. Right?

    That’s all kind of tl;dr to say: this guy is throwing a LOT of flags, yes, but “refuses to name specific cancer” is not /inherently/ one of them. Please. That might just legitimately be the ONE boundary he needs to not cross for his own coping mechanisms. PLEASE don’t imply that he/I possess(es) an obligation to name the flavor of the problem before we can be truly legit.

    • Jenna said:

      Can I say that I love Mysteriously Dramatic Victorian Fainting Malady?
      I have been probably an oversharer about my own breast cancer, but, I *almost* wish that I had come up with something like that.

    • Ann said:

      THANK YOU for this. I’ve seen teens on Tumblr repost and answer really vicious, personal ‘anon’ comments and could never figure out why they did it.

      • Moss said:

        It’s entirely possible that those comments really are from other people though, or even a mixture. I remember being a teen and thinking that I really HAD to reply to hateful emails and messages, for whatever reason. I didn’t have very strong self esteem, and had a sort of idea that replying might show that I wasn’t beaten. I also hadn’t learned that deleting and blocking (or, if tumblr had been a thing back then, turning off anon) would actually feel much better, and I don’t think I even considered it as an option. Weird, I know, but true.

      • Yeah, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes with stuff and it’s so hard to wrap my head around it. My kids aren’t teenagers yet but my sister has a teenage nephew who’s family are not brilliant and she’s struggling with a lot of his behaviours when he stays with her.

        I think the main thing to remember is that people have been behaving in these ways for a number of reasons, probably for ever. The internet just gives them a new set of tools and a broader audience. Whether the person does it online or IRL you should respond in the same way: protect your boundaries, offer support (only if you want to), refer to relevant medical professionals etc.

    • staranise said:

      Oh wow, I think I did that to *myself* when I was 14 or so. It was like a way to act out the really nasty things I’d say to myself in the privacy of my own head, except then I could heroically defeat it with a cheering section at my back. Except less successful. I don’t think I’d grasped yet that I could get support and affection without having to be a damsel in distress first.

  18. Mel R said:

    …By the end of the first paragraph, I thought this sounded hinky. After the first sentence of the third paragraph, I was firmly in the camp of “Dude sounds like he’s faking it”.

    I may be wrong. It’s entirely possible. As other commenters have pointed out, there could be a combination of scared-guy-oversharing and embarrassment leading to him essentially telling you everything BUT what he’s actually got… but not telling you the prognosis? Telling you he doesn’t want to know how long he’s got nicely informs you “I expect to die” (because if he wasn’t actually going to die the doctors would insist on telling him that right away so he didn’t have to suffer in unnecessary fear) without actually SAYING it (so it’s not an obvious guilt trip) and avoids “if it doesn’t go into remission / years from now / well it’s actually only an x% chance.” You’re being presented with all the information that says “This guy is critically ill and reaching out to you and you may only have a short amount of time to Make Him Happy ™ before he DIES,” and none of the information that might counteract that.

    Even if this guy really DOES have cancer, and doesn’t have long to live, and is not saying a single lying word… he still sounds like a manipulative jerk.

    Clarify what he wants. Shut down any romantic hints RIGHT AWAY – explicitly, not just ignoring them or changing the subject; bring it out into the open and tell him “No, I’m not interested in you that way”. If he tries to guilt trip you, call him on it. You are not required to be his pity fuck in order to Make Him Happy ™. Decide exactly how much and what sort of support you are comfortable giving him, and do that.

    Try not to feel guilty. You will. He’s doing a very good job of MAKING you feel guilty. If he’s not doing it on purpose, calling him out might stop him. If he is doing it on purpose, well, screw him (not in the fun way). Assholes get sick too, and it doesn’t change the fact that they’re assholes.

  19. Mandy said:

    This may be a completely unpopular opinion, but look… even if LW believes the best about this guy, that he has cancer and doesn’t want to get into his/her pants, LW can still choose not to engage the friendship BECAUSE he has cancer.

    Personally, I have watched three very close family members die horrible deaths from cancer, and a fourth go through intense and debilitating treatment. I’ve also had many, many years of poor health myself (not cancer), and all of this would make dealing with someone who has cancer immensely triggering. If it were my BFF who had cancer and needed support and someone to talk to, of course I would be there – because as much as the cancer would be triggering for me, this is a person who I’ve had a rewarding and mutually beneficial relationship with long before the cancer.

    LW hasn’t had a long and rewarding relationship with this guy, and even if LW doesn’t find cancer at all triggering due to past experiences, supporting someone who has cancer is a huge, emotionally and physically draining thing that can then create feelings of grief, loss and trauma, even if the cancer patient survives.

    LW may have a lot on their plate, good or bad – a stressful job, a rewarding but time-hoarding community involvement, or maybe LW just has enough friends and doesn’t need a new one.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if LW wasn’t friends with this guy before, cancer doesn’t make a reason for friendship. Yes, it’s sad. It’s also possible he’s lying or trying to instigate pants-action. LW has no obligation to this guy, and consider this – if he is sick, and he got better tomorrow, would you still be friends with him? Would there be a reason for continuing the friendship other than ‘I was supportive when you had cancer’?

    If the answer is no, cut him off. Gently. With a list of resources to access or suggestion to contact a mutual friend if need be. LW, you don’t need to tell him ‘I don’t want to further this friendship right now because you are sick, that is emotionally draining, and I don’t feel we were ever close enough for that to me warrant taking that on board’; you can attempt a slow fade or a careful note explaining you have a lot on your plate so can’t be there for him right now. But really, there’s a certain amount of self-care you need to exercise here, whether or not he’s telling the truth about the cancer. It sounds like you don’t want to be friends with him. So don’t.

    • thelittlepakeha said:

      Absolutely. I’m (nominally) a disability blogger so I have a fair few friends who are also disabled and sometimes as much as I love them I can’t be there for their problems. I wish I could be but I can’t. Luckily this is usually more a case of “I can’t do this today” than “I need to bow out of this friendship” but the latter is completely legitimate.

  20. remi said:

    I don’t really have any experiences with the cancer thing (thank goodness) so I don’t really have anything to add that the Captain or other posters haven’t already taken care of. But I *do* have experience with the “only friendly when you’re single” dudes, as I’m sure mos people have to some degree. They are surprisingly common, aren’t they!

    I have de-friended a number of guys on Facebook because they message me as soon as my relationship status ever changes to single, like clockwork. One of the earlier ones, a guy I met in high school, stuck around for years before I figured things out and booted him. He had a pattern: complete radio silence 90% of the time, but as soon as he found out I was single bam, he’d hit me with constant messages and way way way too much detail about his health problems. He’d go on about the time we spent together in school (we went to the same summer school one year and we’d hang out five minutes a day while we waited for our respective rides home), imply without actually saying that we should hang out soon and get coffee and did he mention how pretty I was yet? Then once a conversation was on the go, he’d start talking about his doctor’s visits and how all his medications were affecting him and what it meant for his future (and usually “haha wow not to imply anything but this has my sex drive ramped way up! i’ve always had a really high libido but this is crazy! wink nudge erection” was thrown in somewhere too). One day he sent me a really rude, insulting email calling me a bunch of names for “leading him on” by I guess not reading his mind and suggesting we hang out and bang so he didn’t have to say it, and I blocked him. A year or two down the road he found me on a dating site and struck up a conversation, as if nothing had ever happened. He got really sexual really early on and I blocked him again. Six months to a year later he was back with a new profile, and apparently had forgotten yet again everything that had gone down between us and was again trying to nudge me into initiating a hangout, and again was over-sharing about his health problems trying to garner sympathy from me. By now I had started reading Captain Awkward, though, so instead of falling for the “reply and be polite we don’t want to make the situation uncomfortable after all!” trap that I had fallen into before, I told him straight up that he was making me uncomfortable with the constant intimate details about his health problems, plus I was insulted that he only messaged me when he thought I was free to date, and I didn’t want to open myself up to his abusive language again since he had obviously forgotten his incredibly rude message to me. He got very apologetic and tried to convince me to give him another chance, but I blocked his messages and now I just ignore and block him every time he messages me (which is once every few months on that dating site — I think he comes back to me every time he breaks up with someone, he has never kept a girlfriend very long to my knowledge).

    Anyway, this example got way longer and more personal than I intended! I am sorry. What I was trying to say but never got around to was, dudes* who only remember that you are “friends” when you are single, aren’t actually your friends. As is pretty obvious. They don’t see you as friends either, though. I have friends who I wouldn’t object to dating, but they are friends first and I don’t ignore them when they are in a relationship, nor do I suddenly ramp up contact when they are single. These dudes think of you as a very inconvenient sex partner, a vagina* that only opens up to them once in a blue moon so they must jump on the opportunity while it lasts. They see nothing of value in you as a person, because if you were worth talking to they would talk to you regardless of your relationship status. But when you ask them if they are actually looking for a romantic rather than a platonic connection and let them know you aren’t interested that way, they disappear again. Sometimes they get very rude about it too and insist that jeez, you’re some arrogant aren’t you, you’re not all that, I’m not even interested in dating you, don’t be so full of yourself, you’re not even that pretty. Even if they have been talking to you on a dating site! Even if they had spent every message up till now flattering and complimenting you!

    *Of course this isn’t limited to guys, people of all genders do it. It’s just that my personal experience has been with guys, hence the specific gendering in this comment.

    • Moss said:

      Aaaaaah, that guy is so gross! As someone who has had a similar problem with an ex (though thankfully, nowhere near as bad your experience *shudders*), I wanted to punch the air when your CA reading inspired you to go direct with him, and how unexpected he clearly found it. It’s amazing how some guys think they can push it, and push it, and push it…and yet they never, ever expect any consequences for them.

      My ex who messaged me in my single periods took the opposite approach by writing waaay too little (‘hello’ ‘hi’) and waiting for me to do the work starting the conversation. Which I did, sadly. I think I was in a low period and interested in having more people around me. He’d drop into conversations almost immediately that he was single. (Me: How are you? Him: I’m great, except I don’t have a girlfriend!’) Even when he was ostensibly not single, he’d do things like inviting me to stay with him (he lived 3 hours away on the train), and say it would be ok because ‘My fiance’s out of town!’ I’m not convinced the fiance actually existed, and was perhaps even invented to be some sort of security for me to show he wouldn’t try anything (:S) but urrrrrrg, what would make him think I’d say yes to an invitation to stay with a man I haven’t seen for 5 years! Wouldn’t asking me if I wanted to catch up over a coffee be better??

      He’d also notice times on fb when I seemed depressed (I went through a very depressed phase during one of the periods when he was messaging me periodically, and didn’t keep all of it off social media) and would nag me to confide in him. It was so clear that he was trying to fill the role of such a nice, supportive guy, without actually ever giving any support. (the one time I did tell him my troubles he responded by saying I should just ‘not care any more’.) Actually his constant nagging that I should confide in him was, of course, all about him and the kind of guy he thought he was. After the ‘you shouldn’t care any more’ incident I got angry at him, and the strain of dealing with the resulting fallout made my depression even worse. He would also constantly flagellate himself for being the reason we broke up, completely ignoring the actual reason (I didn’t want to be in a relationship with him any more), and again making me deal with reassuring him about that. He’s blocked and deleted now, never again will I engage him.

  21. earthboundmisfit said:

    Pity is an expression of power.

    • Brynn said:

      That’s a great topic sentence for a sociology paper. Can’t figure out what’s it’s doing here though?

    • Marvel said:

      Is this the same person who keeps posting clever-sounding but actually-inane one-liners on various posts? I can’t keep track of usernames worth a damn, but it’s getting extremely obnoxious.

      • Season said:

        Marvel, you and I are on the same page here.

      • earthboundmisfit said:

        No, I’ve never posted a one-liner before – actually I think this is only the second or third comment I’ve ever posted. The LW spoke of pity, the Captain spoke of pity, I commented on pity. Sorry you think it’s inane.

        • JenniferP said:

          Your point is interesting and could have used some expansion. Are you saying, for instance, that contacting someone only out of pity (vs. friendship) is inherently unequal?

          But it was certainly within bounds and I apologize for the behavior of other commenters.

      • JenniferP said:

        Marvel:

        a) No
        and
        b) You’re not the moderator. If you want to ask for clarification of a comment, great. If you want to discuss whether something will be helpful or not to the LW, great. Pronouncing a commenting style as generally “annoying” and bringing in business from other threads (inaccurately, btw) is a derail.

        c) Here ENDETH the derail.

        • Marvel said:

          You’re right, I apologize. I could have phrased that in a far more polite manner.

          • JenniferP said:

            Thank you!

    • staranise said:

      Which is why disability bloggers so frequently speak out against it. I get the feeling a lot of people who ask for pity are doing so because they believe that they have no power, so they want to surrender their power to someone else whom they believe will be benevolent. It doesn’t work, though.

      • Surrendering power (by asking for pity) is a round-about way of affirming that you had power at one time. It also plays on societal norms of reciprocity. Who could in good faith refuse a request for pity? That obligation gives the pitied power over the sought-out-pitier.

  22. Not directly relevant to the LW, but may be helpful to other people with friends with cancer, here’s something I wrote out for the CA forums. Some people pointed out afterwards that not all cancer sufferers are the same, and you should of course be guided by the individual, but here’s my take:

    ~~~~~~~
    I had the 10 year anniversary of my own cancer diagnosis recently (I’m fine now, probably), and I recently had tests for other stuff which is unlikely to be cancer but possibly could be, so it’s been on my mind.

    The below is mostly from my own experience. Some of it applies to anyone with a serious illness, and some of it is specific to cancer, which our society gets very weird about.

    Because it’s 10 years later I’m happy to talk about things now, so feel free to ask.

    So, if someone you know has cancer, please try not to do the below, and try to stop other people doing it if you can.

    1. Don’t speculate about why they got the cancer.
    I had people attribute mine to the location of my childhood home, eating dairy products, insufficient positive thinking, etc., and it really doesn’t help. It can be actively harmful as well, leading someone to feel blamed for not being healthy enough. Also the major risk factor for mine (thyroid cancer from Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis) is being a young woman, which is hard to avoid if you’re that way inclined.
    In some ways this is like rape prevention tips – it is a way for people to feel better about their own risks (‘I don’t eat dairy so I won’t get cancer’), but it tips very easily into victim blaming.

    2. Linked to the above, the positive thinking behaviour around cancer is really toxic.
    There is at least some evidence that people’s mood makes a difference to their outcome, so I get where this is coming from, but this does not mean that you can tell a cancer patient to be more positive. Cancer sucks, it’s terrifying, the person you’re speaking to may be throwing up blood 12 times a day. Being guilted for not being positive enough about that experience is truly awful. It leads people to try to put a brave face on, which only hurts them more, and leaves them going through everything alone.
    About half an hour after I got the news that my first round of treatment hadn’t been fully successful, and that I still had cancer markers and would need to do the whole thing again, I phoned a friend of mine in tears to tell her. She told me my attitude wasn’t positive enough. We’re not friends any more.
    What you can do is help someone’s mood by being there for her, validating her experience, and making her feel less lonely.
    See also here: http://gawker.com/positivity-is-bullshit-when-you-have-cancer-1469975747

    3. Don’t shut people down.
    This doesn’t mean you have to listen to things you find truly traumatic, but the correct answer to ‘I might die’ isn’t ‘don’t be silly, you won’t die!’
    Likewise, having someone to discuss gross medical details with is valuable. This might not be you, but I was really glad at the time to have loads of friends who were medical students, who found it interesting rather than gross.
    Don’t force people to talk if they don’t want to, but if you can let them know you’re available to talk it might be a big help.
    People have their own coping strategies, and black humour is a valid one.

    4. Don’t disappear.
    When I got cancer, I kept my six or so closest friends, and lost all the others.
    I sort of understand where this is coming from, because people don’t know what to say. But better to be there and say something than to disappear.

    5. Don’t offer miracle cures.
    Yes, I’m glad your aunt slept with crystals under her pillow, and lived for three months longer than the doctors thought. But I don’t want to get into arguments about anecdata and pseudoscience when I’m ill anyway, I’ve lost my income so I can’t afford to buy all these exploitative rip-offs, and anyway I want to live for 50 years not three months.

    6. Be really careful in offering to pray.
    Some people may find this helpful, some may not. Work out which group your person is in first.
    I generally thought prayer was equivalent to wishing me well – nice but pretty useless. Some people’s conversations about prayers come closer to the miracle cure in point 5 above, and in the worst case it’s also financially exploitative.
    So, if you believe in prayer and want to pray, by all means go ahead. If your person would find it valuable do share, but if not, not.

    7. Seriously, don’t talk about heaven.
    At my grandfather’s funeral, one of the mourners told me that at least if I died of cancer my grandfather would be there waiting for me. I rounded up my family and we left.
    Not everyone believes in heaven, and even the people who do don’t want to get there any faster than necessary.

    8. It’s not a blessing, even in heavy disguise.
    Religious people do this, but there’s a non-religious version too. Yes, every life experience has light and shade. Yes, I learned things about myself. Yes, you can have the personal growth if you promise to take the cancer as well.

    9. Cures and remission aren’t actually a thing.
    The best case scenario is something like mine, where I’m back to mostly normal but have to have drugs to try to stop it coming back, and tests annually to see if it has.
    This XKCD cartoon is totally right, and made me cry when I read it (years later) because it brought everything back: http://xkcd.com/931/
    Also, people who don’t currently have cancer probably have scars or digestive problems or whatever anyway because of the treatment. A cure which puts someone back to their previous life is seriously unlikely.

    10. Don’t expect superhumans.
    Yes, some of us run iron man triathalons, or raise £m for charity, or quit our jobs and travel the world, or speak to the UN, or take up naked basket weaving. They are the minority. Other people just want to get on with their normal lives.

    11. Don’t underestimate the long term effects.
    Serious illness is a trauma, like bereavement or divorce. People have PTSD, depression, anger and hurt. They may be in mourning for the lives they have lost. I missed out on a chunk of my late-20s-early-30s, my life got derailed from where I thought I would be, and it took time before I could build a different life and be happy with it. In my case, about five years.
    Don’t say ‘I thought you’d have got over it by now’. Don’t make jokes about ‘better to die young than live to be old’. (Both of these are the same person, the first coming in surprise at my reaction to the second.)

    12. Don’t stop offering support once they’re out of hospital.
    As above, there are long term effects. Someone who is mourning their old life, their old body, their lost friendships and life plans, still needs support. Keep ringing up, keep visiting, keep doing what you can towards whatever they seem to need.

    13. Don’t feel like every conversation has to be about cancer.
    Talk about your job, your love life and the latest films. Isolation is a big problem, and feeling like the world is passing you by.

    14. War metaphors don’t work for everyone.
    I didn’t fight cancer, I suffered it. My body was the battleground, the doctors fought the cancer.

    15. Statistics don’t actually help.
    One in 20 people with my disease get cancer. I got cancer. One in 200 of those people need additional treatment after the first round. I was that person.
    After that I stopped trusting statistics. They don’t match up to lived experience.

    • ordinarygoddess said:

      This is pure awesome. Thank you so much for your time and thoughtfulness and willingness to share.

      God, that xkcd panel. I’m glad I didn’t see it while Partner was in active treatment, it would have broken me; but at this point, it’s helpful and affirming. (see also: statistics, but coming from the opposite direction; he had a very good outcome on an early-ish stage of a very aggressive, low-survival-rate cancer. His statistical chance of 5-year survival at diagnosis was 7%. Well, we’re halfway to 5 years (!), and I still have flashbacks to seeing that 7% in print for the first time.)

    • Xenophile said:

      “In some ways this is like rape prevention tips – it is a way for people to feel better about their own risks (‘I don’t eat dairy so I won’t get cancer’), but it tips very easily into victim blaming.”

      This is a great insight and just clarified part of my discomfort with a lot of proponents of positive thinking.

    • I would add that these are similar to chronic illness as well.

      • Guava said:

        So much YES to this.

      • This plus infinity….! At age 19 my daughter was critically ill with Guillain-Barre syndrome, and for a time was 99% paralyzed and on life support.
        Thank (whatever deity you believe in) that she recovered her basic function — but she has never been the same, either physically or emotionally.
        The thing is, everyone EXPECTS her to be the same. They want everything to be all better. They want her to go back to being her “old self.” Not happening. She’s not that person any longer, and she has some physical issues that may never be resolved.
        That doesn’t mean she can’t have a life. But it’s a DIFFERENT life, with different challenges, and a surprising number of people can’t handle that. They can’t handle the fact that we don’t actually live in a Lifetime movie, wherein the sick person gets out of bed and runs that Ironman triathlon.
        Americans have a skewed idea of disability. We love newspaper articles and TV specials about people who “beat” cancer or who “overcome” cerebral palsy. We can’t seem to get enough of telethons with cute, spunky kids whose lives will surely have meaning if enough people donate to the scientists toiling to cure this dreaded affliction. We like our disabled people in controlled, comfortable doses – say, every Labor Day. And it helps if there’s music.
        As you may have guessed, I feel pretty strongly about this. If it’s kosher to post URLs, here’s what I wrote about illness/disability on my personal website:

        http://donnafreedman.com/2010/06/24/you-cant-even-tell-perfect-bodies-apart/

        • JenniferP said:

          It is kosher to post URLs when you’ve left substantive comments. Thank you!

    • Muddie Mae said:

      Regarding # 2, I really enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided, which she wrote after her own experience with breast cancer and the positive-thinking brigade. It has a good mix of storytelling and research, and I generally like her style (although YMMV of course).

      • I second the recommendation–I really enjoyed her book as well!

      • _Bright-Sided_ was a good read, and also a good source for statistics if you want to counter positive thinkers’ arguments with science.

    • Paula said:

      Read this list, sat and nodded all the way through. My partner has had leukemia for 2 years, and it’s been a complete rollercoaster emotionally. It looks like he’s going to be okay, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been any less scary.

      I’ve been struggling how to “handle” it, and I think I’ve done pretty much what you’ve listed here, so it felt nice to see some kind of confirmation that I’m on the right track. I’ve been there for him as much as I can, but haven’t changed our entire lives to be all about the cancer even though of course it’s a big deal. And yeah, it’s scary as hell, and I’ve been very honest about my fears and allowed him to express his fears about death without just saying “psh, no you won’t” – cause we can’t be sure.

      Basically I’ve let his current attitude about it steer the conversation, and I’ve tried to be a present-without-being-pushy-shoulder for him. When he wants to focus on it, I focus on it. When he just wants to pretend like it’s not a big deal, I join him in that. I have a friend that I talk to if I need to vent my anxiety and worries about this, which he knows about and encourages me to do if it gets too much for him.

      Sadly, I’ve seen several examples from both friends and family going against every single one of the points that you made. Didn’t end very well in any of the cases, either ended up with friendships breaking or him feeling extremely lousy.

      Hehe, this got way longer than I planned to – mostly wanted to say thanks for sharing that, it helps.

    • Paula said:

      Read this list, sat and nodded all the way through. My partner has had leukemia for 2 years, and it’s been a complete rollercoaster emotionally. It looks like he’s going to be okay, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been any less scary.

      I’ve been struggling how to “handle” it, and I think I’ve done pretty much what you’ve listed here, so it felt nice to see some kind of confirmation that I’m on the right track. I’ve been there for him as much as I can, but haven’t changed our entire lives to be all about the cancer even though of course it’s a big deal. And yeah, it’s scary as hell, and I’ve been very honest about my fears and allowed him to express his fears about death without just saying “psh, no you won’t” – cause we can’t be sure.

      Basically I’ve let his current attitude about it steer the conversation, and I’ve tried to be a present-without-being-pushy-shoulder for him. When he wants to focus on it, I focus on it. When he just wants to pretend like it’s not a big deal, I join him in that. I have a friend that I talk to if I need to vent my anxiety and worries about this, which he knows about and encourages me to do if it gets too much for him.

      Sadly, I’ve seen several examples from both friends and family going against every single one of the points that you made. Didn’t end very well in any of the cases, either ended up with friendships breaking or him feeling lousy.

      Hehe, this got way longer than I planned to – mostly wanted to say thanks for sharing that, it helps.

      • Paula said:

        Whops, doubleposting, hehe, clumsy :)

    • Erika said:

      Thank you for this. The brother of a friend of mine has been suffering from brain cancer for two years now, and recently found out that the chemo he’d undergone didn’t work. I’ve been unsure about how to talk to her about it, and this helps immensely.

  23. TO_Ont said:

    My thought reading was that the guy might be really suffering, and dealing with it in a kind of immature way. Being really sick or possibly dying certainly doesn’t make someone immune from normal immaturity, right? He may be looking for some support that his own social circle can’t give, or fantasizing about a romance or close friendship and using his genuine suffering to gain sympathy.

    It doesn’t sound like there’s a real friendship here, though, and I agree that a forced pseudo-friendship based on pity wouldn’t really be a genuine friendship and wouldn’t be as kind as it might initially seem. In fact in the long run it would likely hurt him, as at some point he couldn’t help but realize that that’s what it was.

    I don’t think you should feel guilty about keeping distance here. It’s totally understandable that you’d feel weird and conflicted about that, but I think it’s the most honest thing to do, regardless of what his motivations are for contacting you.

    • staranise said:

      I think the entire history of human shitty behaviour is, “someone is suffering, and dealing with it badly.”

      • This, this, this, this, THIS.

  24. Frost said:

    This guy sounds very suspicious to me, and I’d be wary of how he suddenly wants to get with you again (Seriously, only contacting you when he knows you’re single? Ugh. Sounds like a ‘friend’ of mine who only contacts me when he wants something…sadly, most of the guys I know are like that. I need to make new friends.)

    The question isn’t whether or not he actually has cancer, however. The question here is, do you want to rekindle a relationship of any kind, friend-wise or romantically, with him? The answer, from your letter, reads as a resounding NO.

    Do you want to be friends with him? Evidently, no. Do you want to strike up a romantic relationship with him? Clearly not.

    Cancer shouldn’t enter into the equation at all, and frankly it’s very cruel of him to try and use that as a manipulation tactic (which it is) against you, regardless of whether or not it’s real.

    My suggested script is:

    ” Manipulator, I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through this, but I have to be honest with you; I am not interested in a romantic relationship with you, nor are we friends. You have only contacted me in the past when you knew I was single, and that makes me very uncomfortable. I am not capable of providing you with the kind of support it sounds like you need. This may sound kind of harsh, but we haven’t been friends in a very long time, and you suddenly bringing this up to me and giving me so much detail all at once is very uncomfortable. ”

    Then, maybe suggest a few friends you know he’s still close to as support systems, or even counseling. If he tries to pull the “But I’m SICK and might be DYING and how can you be so MEEEEANNNN” or tries to get a third party to do this (it happens sometimes), simply respond with “I’m sorry you’re going through this, but I can’t provide you with the kind of support you need/are asking for.” And leave it at that. If they continue BAWWWW’ing, it’s a pretty good sign he’s just trying to use and manipulate you….not that that’s not already obvious.

    You don’t owe him your friendship or love, even if he’s ill. You’re not his doctor, you’re not his caretaker. You are a person he has only contacted when he wants something from you, and that is NOT a friend.

    I repeat: HE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. HE IS A MANIPULATOR.

    Sick or not doesn’t matter. What matters is how he’s making you feel, and what he’s demanding of you being something you can’t/don’t want to provide. You don’t owe him anything, and don’t let anyone try to convince you that you do.

  25. acr said:

    Cancer Shamed –
    I had a somewhat similar experience.

    I started online dating and was connected with “Josh”. We sent a few messages back and forth and I made the plunge and suggested we meet. On his profile he’d mentioned that he was interested in photography, and so am I, so I suggested we meet at a local botanical garden to take pictures, etc. He mentioned that he’d suffered from brain cancer and had some mobility issues, but he should be fine.

    We met up. He had major mobility issues, to the point that he couldn’t walk more than 30 feet without needing to sit. And he talked about his cancer and treatments The. Whole. Time. Here are some sample conversations (not exaggerations).

    Me: I really like dogs. Do you have any pets?
    Him: I used to have a dog, but I had to give him away because I had to move in with my parents while I was receiving treatments for cancer.

    Me: I have really gotten into “The Walking Dead.” Do you watch that?
    Him: My brother actually had a zombie survival kit. He asked me what my plan is for the zombie apocalypse, but I have so many meds that I’d be dead in a week, so why bother?

    And because he walked so slowly and needed such long, frequent rests, it took us an hour to work our way back to the parking lot so I could end the date and leave.

    I felt really bad for him. He was in a terrible place – he didn’t have a job, had had to drop out of school and move in with his parents, he couldn’t drive, etc. So I decided to give him another chance. From his profile, we shared many interests, so I thought that perhaps we could try again. We spoke on the phone and he said, “I have enough money to take you on one nice date. But I’m trying to save up enough to see XYZ band. It’s on my bucket list.” He said this several times over one phone call.

    I decided I’d take him out for a meal. I picked a place, and called him. He rambled a bit, talking about how he had difficulty with some foods because the doctors had had to remove his teeth that had fillings so he could get radiation treatments. And also he couldn’t afford to eat out because he was saving for XYZ Band. Because it was on his bucket list. I assured him since I picked the place it was my treat, and he could look at their menu online.

    I discussed it my sister and she said, “Do you think he’s trying to get you pay for tickets for XYZ Band?” That gave me pause. He certainly brought up XYZ band a lot, and how seeing them was on his bucket list.

    I thought about the whole situation for a while, and I concluded that this guy wasn’t mentally in a place for a new relationship, even a new friendship. I was not in a place where I had the emotional resources to be a listening ear for a stranger to talk about cancer for hours at a time. I sent him a text saying that I didn’t think it was going to work out and that I wished him the best. (I know sending a text wasn’t very brave, but I felt like one “date” and 2 phone calls didn’t require more than that.) He said okay.

    I recently saw on Facebook that he’d passed away. I really examined my feelings and I have no guilt or regrets. I am sad that he is dead, and I think that, had we met before the cancer, we could have been friends. I still think he may have been hoping for me to buy him the band tickets, but I hold no bad feelings towards him about that.

    So, my advice is to not let yourself get sucked in too deeply. Stop frequently to examine situation and think about how you feel about it. Consider any offer carefully before you make it. It doesn’t sound like you want to cut him off, but I think getting super involved, then feeling overwhelmed and pulling away, could be just as cruel. Decide what level of involvement you are able to have and able to sustain, and hold yourself to that.

  26. Spook said:

    This post really got to me, for reasons I think are a bit different than other people’s. To cut to the chase, I faked an illness at one point in my life.

    I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not saying this person is doing so, and Cap’s advice for dealing with this person seems spot on to me. That being said, because of my own experience, I immediately got a whole bunch of sirens blaring when I read the letter. The dangerous-sounding but vague disease, the very vivid details and symptoms, the eagerness to divulge things that many people would find difficult or embarrassing to talk about, the strong push for contact and sympathy that borders on desperate… Again, I can’t know for sure, but it is uncomfortably familiar.

    People who do this are ill. They may not have the illness they claim to have (in my specific case I was too young to know what depression was or how to articulate my symptoms) but they are ill all the same. 99% of me is thoroughly and rightfully ashamed of what I did. It was wrong, period. But the remaining percent understands what it feels like to be that particular kind of ill and balks at the depiction of the evil, manipulative Munchhausen villain who thrives on unearned sympathy and will happily destroy others to get it. If someone reaches a point in their life where they feel the only way they can experience love and kindness is to manipulate and lie, they are ill. At least I was. To help you figure out where you stand, it might help to know where that behavior comes from and how it escalates. If your image of a person who would fake this is as an evil mustache-twirling villain, you may dismiss the idea, while in reality it may be a symptom of a mental illness.

    LW, Cap’s advice is really, really good. At the end of the day, illness or not, you get to choose who you are friends with. I would like to add: don’t let the fact that you are a kind, caring person get in the way of your intuition. You know your own situation and your capabilities best. If (IF) this person is being less than honest about his illness, your intuition is your best friend. People like that (like me) pile lie upon lie and are very forceful about it. Every escalation seems reasonable enough, until you stop to put it all together and it adds up to a soap opera. Maybe you’ll never know for certain, but if you’re open to your own skeptical thoughts, you can be pretty damn sure. So this is a really good time to trust your instincts.

    • Thank you for being honest. I have so many questions. Like, how did it start out? Did it end when you felt better/less depressed or was it a struggle?

      If it’s OT here, I’d love to take it to the forum.

      • Spook said:

        Oh. Wow. When Cap says this is the best comment section on the internet, she’s not kidding. I expected to get absolutely slammed for this.

        I’m afraid it might be OT. The how and why of it is not really helpful to LW. I just wanted to offer some insight from another (possible) angle. There’s this urge that every decent person has to outright dismiss the thought that someone might be faking. “That’s just evil, they would never, how dare I even think it.” But it is possible, and even good people might not be above it if they are desperate enough, and it doesn’t hurt to listen to your instincts. That’s all I was trying to convey.

        I would be happy to elaborate somewhere more appropriate if you would like me to. I’m Devilfish on the forums. Feel free to message me or start a thread if there’s anything you’d like to ask.

    • Molly Grue said:

      I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this. It’s brave of you.

      And you and everyone else are right; in the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not the illness is “real” or not; what matters is how LW feels about the friendship (which is not a thing owed).

    • Darcy Pennell said:

      Thank you for opening up about this. It can’t have been easy, and it’s really valuable to hear your point of view. You sound like you’ve put a lot of work into understanding yourself. I hope you’re in a good place now.

  27. Del said:

    I want to chime in to support that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether he really does have cancer or not.

    My own experience deals with mental illness, rather than physical, but the idea transfers. I got engaged in college, and my fiancee graduated and moved home (about 8 hours by train away from me) when I still had two years left to do. Once that happened, she gradually started telling me about some extremely detailed and fairly disturbing audiovisual hallucinations she was experiencing, and often asked me for emotional support because they scared her.

    Naturally, my impulse was to support, but over time I started to notice that her incidents were very closely correlated to times when schoolwork was demanding the majority of my attention, or my own depression and medication-induced anxiety were getting in the way of me visiting her or spending enough time talking to her in a day. I asked her to get psychological help (begged her, actually), but she always declined and told me that my love was all she needed to feel all right.

    You bet your sweet bippy I thought she was faking!

    About six months after we broke up, she contacted me to say that she’d finally sought professional help and was now taking medication. For a long time I struggled with guilt from this revelation, because I felt bad for doubting her.

    But the thing was, whether or not she was making up the problem wasn’t the issue. It was her expecting me to totally de-prioritize myself in order to cater to her need for comfort, regardless of whether I had a major paper due the next day or was huddled in a miserable ball of my own depression.

    And whether or not he’s conscious of this, he’s expecting the same thing. It sounds like his goal is for you to de-prioritize your own desire to not date him, demonstrated by how you stopped dating him and haven’t started again, in favor of his desire to date you. And it doesn’t matter if he’s terminal or not, that’s uncool.

  28. acr said:

    Del, that was a very insightful post.

    One thing I took away from your story (and my own, posted above), is that even if we completely put aside our own needs, etc, for that person – it still wouldn’t actually benefit that person. By being a Band-aid, we give that person a reason not to seek actual help. By maintaining a relationship (whether romantic or friendship) out of pity rather than a feeling of genuine liking, we are standing in the way of that person seeking out a genuine connection and a genuine, mutually-beneficial relationship. By not forcing myself to be friends with “Josh” out of pity, I think it’s very possible that he was able to spend his last year focusing on the actual relationships in his life.

    • Del said:

      Thank you!

      And yes, I think you’re absolutely correct about being a band-aid. A lot of people convince themselves (with ample help from the messages all around us in society) that all they need to be happy is a significant other. Movies, books, songs, everything we consume tells us that a boyfriend or girlfriend will fix all our troubles. So for people who don’t really examine that or make an effort to decouple the S.O. -> Problems Fixed correlation, it’s easy to think that finding love really is a solution, regardless of what the relationship with that person is actually like or whether they are actually invested in the relationship.

      So this guy who may or may not have cancer, one way or another feels like a whole lot of shit. And he’s convinced that if the OP will start to lavish attention on him, will date him and in his hopes, sleep with him — he’s convinced that will make the feeling like shit part go away. But a) that doesn’t actually work, and b) it reduces the other person in the equation to a miracle cure, to a *thing* that the guy needs to feel better, rather than a person who has their own needs and wants that may be opposed to his.

  29. Courtney said:

    I’m late to the party and too sleepy to read over 100 comments right now. Sorry if this has already been covered, but this is scrolling through my brain in bright lights:

    “I mean, he has cancer. That certainly trumps my awkwardness, right?”

    There is NOTHING that trumps your boundaries. If you decide you want to relax or amend your boundaries with someone, that’s is up to you. But there is NO SUCH THING as a card someone can have that automatically makes your boundaries invalid. (People can violate your boundaries, but they cannot make them invalid.) Your boundaries are always valid.

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