Feelings of powerlessness can help cancer grow. Nothing is more effective to counter powerlessness than to seek out support. This is ingrained deeply into our origins as mammals.

On the great prairie of the Serengeti in Tanzania, when an isolated baboon faces an attack, its levels of cortisol and adrenalin spike sharply. However, if another baboon is present at its side to face the danger this release of stress hormones is halved. And if the baboon is part of a small group monkeys escaping from danger, its stress hormones are barely affected. Like a child showing off in a schoolyard, it might almost be calling out "Doesn't even hurt!"(1).
 
In a recent U.S. best-seller (2), writer and journalist Jeffrey Zaslow tells the story of eleven childhood friends. After their high-school years, these women scattered across the United States, but their friendship survived almost forty years of life's ups and downs -- successes and failures at university, marriages and divorces, the difficulties of their children. One day Kelly learns that she has breast cancer. She'll need support from loved ones. But instead of turning to her family, she chooses to inform her old high-school girlfriends. Their response is considerable. Her simple message sets off a shower of instant love: phone calls, e-mails, letters, packages. Chemotherapy gives her mouth ulcers? A friend sends her a blender to make milk-shakes, to soften her mucous membranes. When she loses her hair, another friend, who has lost a daughter to leukemia, knits her a woolen hat so she won't be cold. A third sends her pyjamas made of special fabric for her night sweats. Kelly explains that it's easier for her to talk about what she's going through with her friends than with her doctors. "We go so far back that these women will talk about anything," she said happily to a reporter from the New York Times (3).
 
Research confirms that when we're in a tough spot friendship networks play a major role, in terms of positive impact on both our morale and our physical, biological condition. An American study of a large panel of nurses has shown that women with breast cancer who could name ten friends were four times more likely to survive their illness than those who could not4. The simple fact of being linked seems to create a protective effect. These results have been echoed in studies of men. According to a Swedish study of 736 men, friendship counts for as much as marriage in terms of its protective effect against cardiac diseases5, and living without friends is just as bad for your health as regular smoking.
 
It's often difficult to ask for help from friends when we need them. We may fear becoming a burden. But we don't need to ask one person to do everything; we need to accept what each person knows about and can easily do. One friend may know how to listen to our pain and lend us a shoulder to cry on, or share a good laugh. Another friend may be able to help us draft hard questions before a consultation with a doctor. A third may be available to help us with childcare, or household chores, or cleaning up, or to drive us when we can't manage it ourselves.
 
Life is sometimes like the endless prairie of the Serengeti, with all its violence and beauty. It's up to us to find the friendships and connections that will help us all, together, to cross it with more tenderness and joy.
 
 
1. "Psychoneuroendocrinology of stress: a psychobiological perspective", S. Levine, C. coe and S.G. Weiner, in Psychoendocrinology by F.R. Brush and S. Levine (Academic Press, 1989).
2. The Girls from Ames, A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship,  by Jeffrey Zaslow (Gotham Books, 2009).
3. "What are friends for? A longer life," T. Parker-Pope, The New York Times (2009).
4. "Social networks, social support, and survival after breast cancer diagnosis" by C.H. Kroenke et al., in Journal of Clinical Oncology (2006).
5. "Lack of social support and incidence of coronary heart disease in middle-aged Swedish men", by K. Orth-Gomer, A. Rosengren and l. Wilhelmsen, in Psychosomatic Medicine (1993).