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Illustration by Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail (Neal Cresswell/Neal Cressswell/Globe and Mail)
Illustration by Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail (Neal Cresswell/Neal Cressswell/Globe and Mail)

I've lost many of my cancer friends Add to ...

I have two groups of friends: the ones who are only a phone call or e-mail away, and the ones I talk to but never hear back from, because they're dead.

I've come to understand how seniors have it tough. As they age, their social circle shrinks as friends pass away. I should have had decades before facing such losses, but everything changed when I got sick with cancer at 20.

Ten months after diagnosis, I had finished 10 rounds of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation treatments. I cautiously re-emerged into the outside world with a bald head, a body bearing emotional and physical scars, and poisonous chemotherapy residue still running through my veins. When I celebrated my 21st birthday, I was barely strong enough to sit up in bed.

Most of my friends were worrying about exams at school while I was paralyzed with fear that my next CT scan would once again light up with cancer. We couldn't relate. Feeling isolated, I was desperate to find connections, to find at least one person my age who could understand that my identity and view of life had been destroyed, that I could no longer plan for the future, not knowing if I would live to see it.

That's when I signed up for Camp Mak-A-Dream in Montana for young adults with cancer.

My first night there, we had a dress-up dance party. I went through the camp's gaudy costume collection, picking out a purple dress with puffy sleeves, then sat in a chair on the edge of the dance floor. Loud music echoed, a disco ball spun and neon lights danced over the dozens of campers. A young man wearing a floral apron and jeans sat next to me. He had brown hair, blue eyes and a gentle smile. "Would you like to dance?" he asked. That's how I met Justin, my first cancer friend.

That night, we spent three hours at a wooden picnic table under the big Montana skies, chatting as if we had known each other for years. Like me, Justin had fought a type of sarcoma. He was one year out of treatment and doing well. I was only six months out, so to me he was a lifeline of hope. Maybe it was possible to beat cancer after all.

But then, he dropped a bomb. He told me about a friend he had lost - his "chemo buddy." It was his first cancer friend, and his death had deeply affected him. He asked me if I had ever lost any friends to cancer; it was a question I hadn't even contemplated.

The next day I met Margot from Chicago, smiling and curly-haired and 16 months out of treatment for exactly the same rare type of cancer as me. She was another beacon of hope.

Two months after camp, Justin was diagnosed with a second type of cancer. Four months later, he died. He was only 20. My first cancer friend was gone, and I was numb and heartbroken.

A year and a half after Justin died, I visited Margot in Chicago. Her cancer had returned and was not responding to treatments, but she still had energy and wasn't in pain. We ate deep-dish pizza in a packed restaurant, visited the local university and laughed as we wrote "cancer sucks!" on fliers posted in the school hallways. We bought cheap T-shirts and decorated them with felt markers, silly fun that kept our minds off her grim prognosis.

The day after I returned home, Margot started experiencing intense pain. Her cancer was spreading aggressively, and she died only six months after our visit. She was 21.

By then, I had formed close bonds with about a dozen other cancer survivors around my age thanks to the Young Adult Cancer Network, a support group I had found in Vancouver. I had already lost a handful of these close friends, all in their 20s, their lives ripped away by cancer. And so my group of "friends on the other side," as I started to call them, began to grow.

Meanwhile, my social circle was seriously shrinking.

I missed them more than ever in 2005, when my cancer returned. One day, I found myself picking up the phone in need of a heart-to-heart, only to hang up with the sinking realization that the friend I was about to call had passed away.

In April of that year, I was lying in bed feeling physically drained and emotionally defeated. I had endured four rounds of chemotherapy over three months, and was heading toward the most risky yet vital part of my relapse treatment - a stem cell transplant. My white blood cells, which form the body's immune system, were so battered from chemotherapy that not a single of these vital cells could be detected in my blood. One of my doctors had bluntly told me that my immune system would likely be too weak to endure the transplant. Hope was fading fast.

I closed my eyes and, to my amazement, felt all the fear, anxiety and anger melt away. It may sound strange, but I believe my friends on the other side were replacing my anguish with peace. Since then, I have felt them ease my fears during numerous checkups.

May 25 will mark six years since my last cancer treatment. So far I have remained in remission, but I continue to deal with common chemotherapy and radiation after-effects, including fatigue, cataracts and digestive problems.

Thanks to my local cancer support group, I can now turn to friends that truly understand the issues I face as a survivor. But they will never replace my group of friends silently cheering me on from the other side.

Karin DuBois lives in Burnaby, B.C.

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