Cancer, coronavirus, 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. As I write this in 2020, due to Covid-19, many people currently may be facing 'self isolation', which means staying indoors and avoiding the company of others.
Loneliness and cancer
If you are currently living in the cancer ‘bubble’ – one full of emotional turmoil, treatments, side effects, challenged and changed by your experiences – you can feel isolated 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.
Figures suggest that there are more than 550,000 people living with cancer who are suffering from loneliness In a 2015 survey, nearly half of people with cancer taking part, admitted to feeling lonely and isolated, despite having good social contacts, and were in relationships. It may be much more currently. 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.
What can I do?
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, for example, is 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. In these changing 'coronavirus' times, you can call us for cancer support on 0300 123 1801, keep up to date with Maggie's latest information and follow Maggie's on social media. You can also register on our Maggie's Online Community,and join in on our online forums, live chats and blogs, where other people can offer support and encouragement.
If you get the chance, talk to those around you and let them know how you feel. Loneliness is not always easy to identify - there's no badge to declare how you feel, and friends, family and work colleagues may be holding back. Talking about cancer, and it's impact, can feel a little daunting - but starting the conversations can help bridge the communication gap. Phone calls, face timing, cards, texts, messages - there are many ways to keep in touch with each other.
As I write this, an added factor, Covid-19, or coronavirus is adding to the 'isolation' mix. Keep up to date with the situation, from reliable sources - GOV.UK provide 'stay at home guidance'. It's tempting to keep an eye on the 24 news coverage of this changing situation - but psychologically, if you can find ways to just check in occasionally - it can help. Take up offers if neighbours/friends/family are offering help/support. Check the NHS website's 'Coronavirus (COVID -19)' for up to date information. There may local support in your area, if you are being isolated because of the coronavirus, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK (for example) is a new website which is run by a group of volunteers. They are supporting local community groups organising mutual aid throughout the covid-19 outbreak in the UK. Their focus is on providing resources and connecting people to their nearest local groups, willing volunteers and those in need.
Try and create some kind of routine, which creates familiarity and a sense of normality. Finding ways to relax, if possible - mindfulness, relaxation, and breathing exercises can help. There are a number of helpful mindfulness and relaxation apps - such as Headspace, calm.com, and Buddhify.
I'm sure there are online visitors who can share their own experiences and support - we look forward to hearing from you,
(Updated April 2020)