Woman calls after a man running away from her

Hill Runners: Have People Sprinted Out Of Your Life Since Diagnosis?

I’ve hesitated to write about this topic. I’ve learned, though, that many blood cancer patients have had this experience. I believe it is more common than not. So, here it goes.

When I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia more than six years ago, I never imagined that some people close to me would choose that time to “exit left.”

Hear me out. The earliest days are a blur to me and I let a lot of people know by phone. I tried to relay what the doctor told me as I was still trying to digest why my chromosomes 9 and 22 would choose to mutate for no apparent reason. I tried to grapple with the fact that CML, this weird, rare type of leukemia, had invaded my life and was here to stay. And, I went about my business, traveling back and forth to the cancer center for a lot of bloodwork and tests.

I was also trying to adjust to the nasty side effects of CML and its anti-cancer drug treatment called tyrosine kinase inhibitors or TKIs. Now, I was realizing what 'feeling sick' really meant. In addition, I was trying to carry on with my job traveling around conducting interviews for a daily newspaper. It took some acting skills to come across cheerful and energetic when I was falling apart physically and mentally.

I can see that now but I didn’t back then.

Why do people run away from cancer patients?

Okay, back to the exit left people. I call them “hill runners.” Understand that there are varying degrees of hill running. There are the "you are sick and I feel gross about it so I’ll ignore you and not have to think about it” sprinters. Then there are the "I’ll slowly start backing up and jog away" runners who I guess hope I won’t notice or don’t mind if I do. And, of course, the Olympic-type runners who ran away so fast and disappeared over the hill never to be heard from or seen again.

It’s only been the last year and a half or so that I can joke about it and feel over it. There’s journalism advice I was given about letting go of your work: “Bless and release.” It applies here. Still, I’m not going to lie. Hill runners hurt my feelings... a lot. Why would people who supposedly love you disappear when you could use a friendly phone call or need a brief outing or a kind word to feel normal now and then? I’ve heard many possible reasons.

The one that irks me most is that it reminds people of their own mortality. Okay, it probably does but wouldn’t that push them toward the people they are afraid to lose and not away? Next.

They are trying to give “space and “time” to the patient during this period. Yes, there will be times when someone with blood cancer needs to be alone or is not physically up for “fun.” That doesn’t mean you never can ask them or speak to them again.

I heard a reason this week: The (hill runner) is mourning your death now to prepare themselves for when it happens later. So, they are distancing themselves so the loss will not feel as bad? It kind of makes sense but on the other hand, true, sincere friends (or spouses or significant others) would behave differently. (By the way, we’re not dead yet). True story.

We are the same people

Several months into diagnosis, a friend of mine who had been avoiding me, one day agreed to meet me for lunch.

We had a sit-down lunch, talking about our lives and catching up. When we were preparing to leave the restaurant, she said, “Susan, you act exactly the same.” I was taken aback. I replied, “Why? Who did you think I was going to act like?”

Take note people: Just because we have cancer doesn’t mean we aren’t the same person.

I know I’ve changed a lot physically because of CML. Hell, mentally too, I think I’ve become more serious and introspective. I don’t have time to sweat the small stuff but I’m still into music, movies, books, etc., and would enjoy sharing those things with others. (Pre-pandemic, of course). Now, there’s always virtual. The hill runners are missing out.

What about you? Have other people changed how they act towards you? Were there hill runners in your life?

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