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by SusieQ

Cancer Support Specialist's View
04 April 2016 at 10:56

Cancer, loneliness and isolation…

 No man is an island...(John Dunne)

Trying to describe loneliness, to someone who hasn’t experienced it, might be a little bit like describing strawberries to a martian. You know what it feels like, but can’t put it into words. Add in ‘cancer’ and the descriptors become even harder to nail down…

If you are currently living in the cancer ‘bubble’ – one full of emotional turmoil, treatments, side effects, challenged and changed by your experiences – it can feel isolating and lonely. You may be sitting in the same room as family and friends who care about you – but yet still feel lonely and not understood. There are others among you, who may not have close social and family networks. You too may be trying to get your head round your cancer diagnosis, negotiate appointments, deal with treatments, and think about the ‘what if’s’ and emotional issues totally on your own.

Recent figures suggest that there are currently 550,000 people living with cancer who are suffering from loneliness (cited by Macmillan Cancer Support, 2015).In a recent survey, nearly half of people with cancer taking part, admitted to feeling lonely and isolated, despite having good social contacts, and were in relationships. Meanwhile people living alone were missing appointments and skipping meals, as they didn’t have the social support needed to help get them through the difficult days.

The trouble is, we humans thrive on belonging. It’s what makes us tick – part of life’s essentials. I found a definition for ‘belongingness’ – ‘ the quality or state of being an essential or important part of something, and is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group’.

Cancer often takes you away from all what previously familiar. Your social support networks suddenly disappear – work colleagues, nights out with friends, trips out to the shops. Some people find that as soon as ‘cancer’ enters their world, their friends simply evaporate too…or temporarily seem to lose the ability to understand how life might feel for you just now…

You may not be working – life revolves around appointments, hospitals, feeling unwell, maybe looking and feeling different to the person you were before. You may suddenly feel alone – not part of any group – and it leads to the isolation many of our online visitors tell us about. There can be a knock on effect – recent studies show that feeling lonely can  affect your immune system, disrupt your sleep, and may create a chronic state of stress (which also limits the immune system).

I would add that this also applies to those around you – maybe in a similar way – as someone caring for someone with cancer, or bereaved have expressed feelings of being alone, whilst the rest of the world moves hurriedly by.

This is where the support of others who understand, and belonging to the ‘group’ can help you through the challenging times. Meeting people who ‘get it’ – without necessarily needing to explain, about what you may be feeling or going through. Being able to talk if you want to – share your differences and similarities, without feeling ‘different’ any more. Maggie’s Centres (including online), for example, are a good place to start finding yourself again – taking control, helping yourselves and those around you get through the cancer experience, and finding out what the new ‘normal’ might be.

Meanwhile, if you’re reading this, and thinking how can I help someone I know who is living with cancer, then you may find the book ‘What can I do to help?’ by Deborah Hutton (2010) a useful read. There are also some good ideas on ‘The Source’ webpages by Macmillan Cancer Support. Sometimes it’s just a case of being there – for the good and the not so good days.

I’ve probably made cancer sound a very depressing experience – and that is not my intention. If you’re just at the beginning of finding out you or someone close to you has a cancer diagnosis – then being aware that it can feel different and isolating, means you can address the possibility early.

Do get in touch, or leave a comment - it would be good to know if having cancer has temporarily made you feel more lonely...

Warm wishes


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