Loneliness is one of the less recognised experiences of cancer, and yet there are a number of reasons why it is part of the roller coaster ride. Ridiculous though it may appear to be, cancer carries a stigma, and thus threatens our relationships.
When I was going through my treatment for cancer, I often felt ostracised and cut off from people who had formerly been supportive. Many times I felt their pity, and that in itself drove me to back away from their company. Others that used to visit, stayed away. Some even avoided speaking to me on the phone, when I craved the sound of a human voice.
There were times when I longed to go out and visit or get involved in activities, but I was too sick, too weak, or my immunity was at risk.
If your friend seems to withdraw from company, understand that people on treatment often find their lives controlled by their blood counts. They are not "feeling sorry for themselves". When their blood counts are too low, which is often the case around the 3rd and 4th days of chemotherapy cycles, they dare not mix with other people.
Folk that would normally reach out to them may think they are rejecting them - or that they are no longer interested in their projects. You can help by standing up for your cancer friend, and educating people as to his or her needs.
There may be times when they are with people, yet realise they don't understand. There were several occasions when I had family and friends around me, and yet felt out of the conversation, as if I were now a non-person whose opinion didn't count.
Sometimes people want to help but don't know how, so they hang back, unintentionally cutting off the interaction. Some may even appear to be afraid of the person with cancer.
Loss of hair or weight, causes a great deal of selfconsciousness. The survivor feels different from others, and that is frightening as well as hard to deal with.
Your friend may feel, rightly, that no one understands what he's going through, and this may cause him to become introverted. At least he knows what he's feeling, even if he doesn't always understand. However the turning into himself is not healthy, and as a friend it is your responsibility to help others understand and be more open to his need of fellowship when he's feeling well enough.
The sense of isolation is increased if the person finds it difficult to talk about his experiences. It becomes easier to say, "I'm fine thank you," than to launch into an explanation that the person you're talking to doesn't want to hear. Another way people deal with this is by finding other reasons why they aren't themselves. "I didn't sleep well last night." "I don't have my makeup on yet." "I've got a lot on my mind."
There's more to the issue than the person feeling unhappy. Researchers suggest that loneliness makes cancer more likely, and also more deadly. Social isolation appears to aggravate cancer growth. According to lead investigator Gretchen Hermes, of Yale University, "There is growing interest in relationships between the environment, emotion and disease. This study offers insight into how the social world gets under the skin."
The solution is obvious, if not difficult to put into practice.
- Identify the problem, as always, and make an effort to deal with it.
- Encourage your friend to meet up with other people who have, or have had, cancer.This may involve joining a support group, and being free to talk with others who face the same challenge. When I was on treatment, my oncologist discouraged me having interaction in this way, and in doing so did me a great disservice. There are some people for whom this is not a good option, but for the more outgoing person, as I was prior to cancer, it could have made a huge difference to my life and the crippling loneliness I experienced during that time.
- Help them get online. The social networks of today offer a tremendous support for people who are stuck at home without human fellowship. I joined an online support group near the end of my treatment, and found it wonderful. These women whom I never met and have since lost all contact with, shared their hurts, their fears and their needs, with one another. We exchanged cards through the mail, and one woman sent me a handmade "snow girl" all the way from America. Pinned to the snow girl was a beautiful gold pin shaped like a cancer ribbon, with a small pink stone. Although the snow girl has long since gone, I still treasure that pin today.
- Try to find a Christian support group online. There's something wonderful about being able to request prayer from people that you know aren't going to judge you for your lack of faith. As your friend heads off for that test or treatment you dread, the knowledge that across the world there are people lifting you up in prayer is a tremendous source of encouragement.
- Register your friend with the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network, even if you don't live in America.
- If your friend doesn't want to join a group, encourage him to spend time with a close friend or family member, a social worker, professional counselor, or a member of the church who has a gift for working with people in crisis. The less your friend talks about cancer, the more it may become all they think about, and the more lonely they will become. So be prepared to talk endlessly about how your friend feels, why this is how he feels, and what steps you and he can take to conquer the problems. Lessen the drain upon yourself by involving you friend with others, especially those in a similar situation.