How cancer diagnosis can create lifelong friendships

By Lenore Skenazy

The upside of cancer?

Not sure there is one. But there does seem to be one side of cancer that is the opposite of terror, loneliness and pain: The unexpected friendships that grow just like those damn cells.

“I was diagnosed pretty young—31,” says Stacey Gordon, a Bronx native living in Alabama who is now—knock wood—51.

Gordon had already moved down there with the Air Force when she found herself facing breast cancer.

“I wasn’t married, I was all alone,” recalls the personal trainer, so she decided to gather a group of other breast cancer comrades to exercise with. This, despite the fact that the doctors back then “wanted to wrap you in cotton.”

The group exercised to the point where they were fit enough, a few years later, for a bigger challenge: Mt. Kilimanjaro, which, Gordon hastens to add, “was not a cliché back then.”

As close as she was with the group, it wasn’t until she was climbing with them—and realizing that she couldn’t make it to the top—that she really got to know another member named Jane, who couldn’t go any further either.

“We probably had almost nothing in common. She was married and had older children and was very Southern. Perfectly coifed, perfect makeup. She’s also very religious and Christian. Me, I was young, I’m gay, I’m Jewish.”

Somehow, they talked about it all—even while touring Tanzania—and came back tight friends. So tight that when Jane grabbed her hand to pray, “I used to be embarrassed about it,” says Gordon, “but that kind of changed.”

And so did Gordon. Something very angry started melting away. (She also went back and summited Mt. Kilimanjaro a few years later.)

For Stephanie Johnson, a new friendship began even before she knew for sure she had breast cancer.

“I was working part time at a bar,” says the beauty consultant and photographer. She’d just learned she needed a biopsy on her left breast, when into the bar walked a woman “covered in pink everything. She was wearing scarves, and breast cancer-related jewelry. I approached her and said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you but … are you dealing with breast cancer?’ ”

The woman—Robin—answered “Yes” and gave her some friendly tips on how to get through the biopsy. When the results came back positive, Stephanie contacted her again and the stranger became a mentor.

It was Robin who gave Stephanie a basket filled with lip balm, a lap blanket to keep her warm during chemotherapy, and tissues.

Lots of tissues.

“I was like, ‘Why am I going to need these?’ ” says Stephanie. Robin explained that when hair falls out, it all falls out—including nose hair. This leaves people sniffling.

Once again, an odd couple was born: Robin went to Bible study. Stephanie was covered with head to toe tattoos.

“I think we would never have interacted if it weren’t for breast cancer,” says Stephanie.

But once the two became friends, Stephanie turned around and became the “Robin” to other women with the same diagnosis—right down to delivering gift baskets of blanket, balm and Kleenex.

“In some ways, helping someone else deal with their fears makes it easier to face your own,” says Jenn McRobbie, author of “Why Is She Acting So Weird? A Guide to Cultivating Closeness When a Friend is in Crisis.”

Cancer friendships may be based on some powerful mix of empathy, courage and desperation, but at their root is always kindness.

“It happened to me on various levels,” says McRobbie. “When I was walking through the mall and I was bald as a cue ball, I would have women walk up to me and hug me and just say, ‘Solider on, sister,’ and then they’d just keep walking. They didn’t feel the need to tell me why they felt that way.”

But as close as she grew to some of the strangers she met, she was also surprised to see some of her usual circle of friends slip away, simply freaked out by what she was going through. That’s another reason cancer friends can be so crucial.

“We’re all in the same boat,” says Haralee Weintraub, a breast cancer survivor now selling pajamas that keep women cool during the night sweats that can accompany the disease. She’s been in an exercise and support group for nearly a decade.

“Our conversations go beyond, ‘What do you do for a living?’ ” says Haralee. “They’re about what’s more important in your life.”

And what’s more important than feeling loved and connected?

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and the author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.