Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two friends who were both diagnosed with the same cancer—acute myeloid leukemia—one right after the other. They discuss how this unhappy coincidence shaped their friendship and their faith, and what they’ve learned about the right and wrong ways to support a sick friend.
Doug Kelley, 64, a professor at Arizona State University who lives in Phoenix, Arizona
Ted Wueste, 51, a pastor who lives in Phoenix
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Paint me a portrait of what your friendship was like before your diagnoses.
Doug Kelley: Our friendship was in a growth stage. One day in a sermon, Ted had quoted a couple of people who I was familiar with and who were a little bit out of the box. So I made an appointment to see him, because I wanted to find out if he was the real deal.
Ted Wueste: I probably quoted Henri Nouwen or maybe Richard Rohr. Doug and I both grew up in the more conservative evangelical stream of the Christian faith. Those two authors speak to the search for God in some really deep personal places, in ways that the more traditional [writings] didn’t.
Doug: Both those authors are Catholic. You don’t traditionally hear Catholics quoted in evangelical churches. Those authors lean more to a contemplative side of the faith. They quote freely. They might use a Buddhist or a Native American story.
We sat down and had a long, great conversation. I came home and I told [my wife], this is the real deal. We both had similar takes on our faith, which influences our worldview. And both of us love humor—really dumb humor. Ted loves practical jokes. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can talk deeply with this guy about what it means to be human or the nature of our spirituality, and we can hang out and just be goofy.” It was so great to find that.
Beck: Ted, what was your first impression of Doug?
Ted: Here’s a kindred spirit. Somebody that is speaking a language that connects deeply with me and my experience. From the beginning there was a resonance. We went really deep really fast. I remember him sharing about his best friend who had died of cancer a few years before. I thought, This is somebody that has depth.
Beck: Ted, you were the first one to get diagnosed with cancer—when was that?
Ted: I was diagnosed in October of 2017. I’d been feeling sick and kept going to the doctor, and they just kept giving me antibiotics. Finally I got an X-ray. Doug and I happened to be together having a beer one afternoon when I got a call that something showed up on the X-ray that didn’t look good.
I was then diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I very quickly had surgery. I went through six months of chemo, and they told me at the end that I was cancer-free. Then it came back. I had a stem-cell transplant, but it didn’t work. It was pretty devastating.
They did another bone-marrow biopsy, and I’d developed acute myeloid leukemia.
Beck: Oh my goodness. Two cancers. That’s too many cancers.
Ted: It’s something else to find out that you have cancer when you have cancer.
I was in the hospital for seven weeks. It almost killed me. I went into heart failure. But the cancer was dealt with, I went home, and successfully went through the stem-cell transplant.
Beck: Did your friendship change as you were going through all that?
Ted: Doug was with me every step of the way. Especially during those seven weeks in the hospital. He would just come in and sit with me. There were times when I couldn’t even talk and he would just hold my hand and be with me, sometimes for hours at a time. That certainly bonded us deeply.
Beck: Doug, what was your memory of that time? Especially since you had already lost a friend to cancer; that must have been hard to watch.
Doug: Yes. I have a distinct memory of talking to my friend—his name was Dick—on the phone one night. I was standing in the swimming pool, and he was telling me that he was going to die from his cancer. It just brings tears to me.
The whole time Ted was talking, I had tears. I thought, You’re just abandoning me. You’re the one guy I have. But I knew immediately: I was going to invest fully in this and not pull away.
Cancer just slows your whole life down, when you’re hospitalized. So in some ways it creates this great space to be together. Ted was reading when he could; we would talk about what we were reading. Now that we’re both healthier, it’s harder to find time to be together. We still do, but it’s harder.
Beck: At some point, you got the same kind of cancer Ted had, isn’t that right Doug?
Doug: That’s correct. Ted went to a stem-cell transplant in April of 2019. They just drip it from a bag, and it looks kind of like a strawberry Icee. There’s no big dramatic surgery. So a number of us were there for that, just hanging out.
Three months later, in July, I was feeling pretty bad. We were on a road trip up the West Coast, and I finally had to go to urgent care. They wanted to hospitalize me immediately. But I talked them into letting me come home.
The cancer had created a little leaking spot in my colon, so E. coli had gotten into my system. They kept poking around, and then they found the cancer—[acute myeloid leukemia].
Ted, I’m not sure what your experience was, but I remember when the doctor told me what it was. I just wanted to say, “No.” My job was to be the healthy one helping Ted. I was thinking I’m not the kind of person that gets cancer. I don’t know what kind of person is, but it’s not me.
Ted: I was in the midst of my recovery, just starting to feel a little better. I’ll never forget the night he called and told me he had the same kind of cancer I do. I must have cried for hours. I thought, I’ll take it back again if that’s what it would take. I don’t want him to have this.
Beck: What did you make of that horrible coincidence? Did you have thoughts that there was some greater meaning to it?
Ted: There’s mysteries to the way that God works and how the universe is put together. Doug got his transplant six months after I got mine. I had that sense of I walked through this, and now it’s my turn to be there for him. He’s going through something, and I can understand it fully. It looks like a coincidence and yet somehow, I think, we were meant to walk through this together.
Doug: I’ve always thought that I got the better end of the deal. I was healthy when I was showing up at the hospital and hanging out with Ted. Then I get diagnosed with this and I have this close brother who has been there that I can now lean on, and ask practical questions of.
Some talk about our spiritual perspective did come into play. Neither of us believes that God does this to you to teach you a lesson. It’s a mystery. It’s brutally difficult, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. But there are so many gifts and beautiful things in the midst of it. Our friendship is one of those.
Ted: I ended up writing a book about the journey called Welcome Everything. It starts off with those words: “Welcome everything. Everything? Well, yes.” The first chapter walks through the idea of welcoming cancer rather than fighting it. Trying to welcome whatever God was doing with us. It’s not something we would ever wish on anyone. But I can say for me, I wouldn’t trade what I walked through these last years for anything.
At this point, both of us are cancer-free. We don’t know how long that will last, if it’ll last. We pray that it does. But we have that perspective of: We can embrace it and know that there are gifts in the middle of it.
Beck: What have you learned about how to support a friend through illness, having each been on both sides of that in your friendship?
Doug: I think we’re both good at initiating with each other. It’s easy to feel like, No, it’s been a rough day. I don’t feel like talking. Then somebody just shows up at your door, and all of a sudden you realize what a gift it is that this person is here. I would’ve told you no, but I’m so glad you’re here.
Ted: One of the most significant—and one of the most difficult—things is to just be present. The hospital is a really scary place for a lot of people. Often people don’t want to enter into that space because it’s just too uncomfortable. When I was in the hospital, there were some people who I had to ask to come visit me. But Doug was never scared. He was always just there.
That’s what people need. They don’t need answers, because most of the time there aren’t any good answers to some of the questions that illness brings up. But the presence of another person is huge, and it can’t be replaced by anything else.
Beck: Did your diagnoses change any of your other friendships? Making them stronger, or some of them falling away? Or were there friends who meant well who didn’t understand what you really needed?
Ted: I experienced almost all the different things that you said. There are people I didn’t hear from. After the fact, they said, “We wanted to give you your space.” And I was like, “Well, I didn’t ask for any space.” But for some people, I think that was their way of dealing with it—withdrawing.
A couple of other people tried to give me spiritual advice that I just knew wasn’t true or right. Or [they might] say, “What are you learning from all of this?” That can feel really demeaning. That all this is so that I learn a lesson. When you’re looking back, it’s incredibly valid to ask What did you learn? But in the middle of it, well, I just got punched in the stomach and I’m in pain. I’m not really in a place to think about that. We were holding on deeply to the idea that there was good that would come from it, and even good in the midst of it. But that’s a deep, visceral trust in faith, rather than some glib cliché.
I also have a whole box filled with cards and notes from people. Tons of people showed up. There were some bad examples of people not knowing how to be there. But far more wonderful, beautiful things.
Doug: Everybody has their own way of dealing with your pain. I was surprised that I didn’t hear from some of my friends more—I needed to let go of that early on. I realized they’re on their own journey trying to figure out how to deal with this too. If I need more from them, I need to tell them. I don’t harbor anything against anyone from that time.
I learned to appreciate the smaller things. I got a card once a week from my sister-in-law’s little church in the middle of Missouri saying that their prayer group was praying for me. I’d never met any of them. And you’re like, “Somebody in Missouri is just sitting there praying for you. How beautiful is that?” There were all these little beautiful moments along the way if you chose to see them.
When I was in the hospital for three months, Ted was still coming in for regular treatments, so he could pop in any time.
Ted: I really got to know the nurses on that particular unit. One of them was a bit of a prankster. So one day I said, “Let’s go play a trick on my friend.”
We went in [to Doug’s room], and she said, “I’m here to get your proctology sample.”
Doug: I’m thinking, Okay, they’ve been in pretty much every orifice of my body already anyway.
Ted: Then the nurse looked over at me and said, “Hey, Ted, could you help out with this?”
Doug: That’s when I knew for sure. We’re close, but we don’t do all that.
Beck: Doug, you sent me an article you wrote about having to wear a mask after getting the stem-cell transplant. Ted, you had a similar experience. How did wearing a mask shape your interactions and relationships? Has that changed during the pandemic?
Ted: I had to wear a mask for probably two and a half years before the pandemic. I had so many experiences where everybody’s staring at me. Little kids asking their parents, “What’s wrong with him?” During the pandemic, I wasn’t a weirdo anymore.
Doug: I’d only been wearing a mask since the end of November 2019.
In the hospital I had to intentionally work against adopting a patient mentality. All of a sudden everything is stripped from you. I was Dr. Kelley at Arizona State University, and now I’m in this funky gown, and everybody is doing everything for me. It’s kind of like being a child. You don’t know enough to make decisions.
Once you’re out, it’s easy to fall back into this everybody-does-everything-for-you mode. I found it easy to pull back, and the mask provided a place to continue to hide.
Beck: Did you feel like your instinct in interactions was to make yourself small?
Doug: That’s a great way to put it. There’s centripetal force, and there’s centrifugal force. Centrifugal throws things out and away, and centripetal pulls inward like a whirlpool. My sense of self, if I wasn’t careful, felt like it was spinning and becoming smaller and smaller.
If I was with my wife, they might talk to her about me like I’m not there. I had cancer, but I can still talk. People in wheelchairs experience this, and others with disabilities. If you’re not careful, and you just sort of accept that, you can feel like you’ve become smaller as a person.
That’s part of the importance of our friendship: We were able to engage each other so fully in those times—like we normally did. We were talking about things we were reading, and deep stuff, and we were being funny and inappropriate. That was a critical part of me maintaining a sense of self and not just letting it become diminished.
Beck: You could take up more space when you were with each other.
Doug: Yeah, that’s a nice way to put it.
Ted: The issue of identity is really significant when you’re dealing with life-threatening illness. For me it was really important to say, “I’m not a cancer victim.” Cancer just happens to be a part of my circumstance right now. It wasn’t my identity.
Doug: But neither of us wants to go back to how we were before. This has changed us in significant ways. We want to embrace that and not lose what we gained during those times.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique