A person with a headscarf is hugged by the ghost of a woman

A Guide To Being ‘’Ghosted’’: Cancer Edition

Like it or not, at some point or another, we have likely all been ghosted. Whether it was after a move, school or career change, a marriage or a new baby, chances are it has happened to us. But what about when it happens after a cancer diagnosis? That sting is, perhaps, more painful than any other. It does not occur at a time of excitement, of advancement. Instead, it happens when you are probably at your lowest. Lost, confused, meandering through a new, scary world, longing for an iota of normalcy. Of your old life. Of something, anything, that makes you feel like you again. Instead, you seek out that friend, relative, colleague, even spouse, and you find they are...gone. Absent. Elsewhere. Too busy to talk, to see you. You find yourself ghosted. Being ghosted during a cancer diagnosis is an experience like no other, and I wanted to learn more about why this happens so often.

In my quest for answers, I interviewed Eve Bampton-Wilton, a senior psychological well-being practitioner in the United Kingdom, who is also a breast cancer survivor. Here is what she had to say. "Ghosting is a term we often hear exclusively for the fast-paced, swipe right (or is it left?) dating world we find ourselves in. But it has also become a recognized phenomenon when we are diagnosed with cancer.

Ghosting after a cancer diagnosis

Many describe friends, family, and partner disappearing as soon as the "C" word is uttered from your lips, others fade more gradually, like street-lights at dawn. I can put my work hat on all I like, but as someone who has experienced being ghosted after my own cancer diagnosis, there is no getting away from how much it hurts. But why does ghosting hurt so much? Well, actually, there are lots of reasons which we can think about from a psychological perspective.

Firstly, there is a level of ambiguity which means the closure is difficult. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it is indifference. You don’t know how to react or deal with what’s going on, because you don’t quite know what has actually gone on. Social cues allow us to adjust our own behavior accordingly – ghosting deprives us of those cues and a consequence of that is feeling out of control and emotionally dysregulated. It gives you no opportunity to be given information that would help you to process what has happened to you. Cue our brains trying to work it out for us as if our poor little grey matter isn’t working hard enough to process a cancer diagnosis and all that comes with us. Our brain is wired to problem solve and search for answers, even when there are none.

Needing reassurance after a cancer diagnosis

Ghosting doesn’t just cause you to question that relationship, but to question yourself. It directly affects our sense of worth and self-esteem, which, is going to significantly knocked with a cancer diagnosis already. Lots of people will be feeling incredibly vulnerable already and perhaps needing more reassurance than they ever have before.

Social rejection

Research shows social rejection actually activates the same neural pathways in the brain as physical pain. So yeah... Ghosting. Actually. Hurts. Why would someone "ghost" me when I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer?! Well, not that it makes it okay, but there are lots of reasons for that too. A person might be fearful of confrontation, and that can stretch to many things, but particularly relevant here is being stared in the face by death itself. Someone may have intimacy problems and be avoidant so they don’t have to face them.

Avoid feeling shame

A person might be ashamed of the way they are feeling – scared for you, scared for themselves, even relieved that it wasn’t them - shame is a very toxic emotion and people will go to GREAT lengths to avoid this feeling. They might be avoiding the relationship in order to seek safety, or they may not be able to cope with the feelings of helplessness or guilt that comes with being on the side-lines of a life-threatening illness. They may not be able to detach from the fears for themselves. They may be overwhelmed with the idea of seeing their loved one turning into the image they hold of a cancer patient. They may be too scared to watch you deteriorate, or watch you die. The take-home message? Their behavior says FAR more about them and their issues than a problem with you.

A breast cancer diagnosis can make people uncomfortable

The primary focus for that person is avoiding their own emotional discomfort. And let’s be honest, a cancer diagnosis is pretty uncomfortable, for many reasons. They do not have the courage to deal with what you have no choice but to face and have most likely convinced themselves their actions are okay. Take some time to lick your wounds, of course. But then? Let them go. You most likely won’t get the answers you are looking for, because they don’t have the emotional maturity or level of self-reflection to know themselves.

Don’t let their actions allow you to lose your sense of vulnerability with other relationships. Surround yourselves with those who are stepping up, because those people are worth their weight in gold.

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