When cancer is a lone journey



I was very lucky to have great support from family during my cancer treatment. That support was vital to my recovery on both a practical and emotional level. So, I felt quite sad and humbled reading an article on the subject of solo cancer fighters, those who for many reasons are going it alone in their cancer struggles. It highlighted again for me how lucky I have been. The following are some extracts from Marc Silver’s article at Cure Today.

They are alone for a variety of reasons. Some prefer the solitary life. Or they may be alone because of circumstance: older people who’ve lost a spouse (and many friends) as time has passed, new immigrants, young people who’ve moved to a new city, folks in midlife who’ve seen a marriage crumble. If they have family members who live far away, the rising cost of gas and airplane tickets may hamper their ability to visit.

Call them “independent” or “isolated” cancer patients—both adjectives are appropriate. They’re proud of their ability to handle things on their own, although they may not have come up against anything quite like cancer before. And they may feel a suffocating sense of loneliness as weeks and months of treatment drag by.

The medical community tries to identify and reach out to single patients from the get-go, and for good reason. Studies show that people who live alone have a harder time coping with a cancer diagnosis. Social support, such as having a loving, caring spouse who helps provide food and transportation, confers a degree of well-being and has a protective effect, says psychologist Anne Coscarelli, PhD, director of the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology at the university’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Decisions are difficult for any cancer patient, perhaps more so for the independent operator. “A single person has to trust themselves a whole lot more,” says Cathleen Carr, 52, of Tacoma, Washington. An experienced researcher from her work as a consultant, Carr dived into the web to learn more about her breast cancer, which hit in 1995 and returned in 2004.

Others want to ask for help but may be wary of rejection. A single mom when she was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma in 2002, Sharon Anderson of San Francisco remembers how hard it was for her to reach out.

 “I made the assumption friends were busy, had their own kids,” says Anderson, now 50. “I didn’t feel close enough in those relationships where I could ask for help. That was a wake-up call that I needed those kinds of relationships. I needed to give that way, and to be able to receive that way.”

To a person reluctant to seek help, Coscarelli advises: “The first step is to say, ‘I’m worthy of help. I deserve this help.’ ” Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? Someone says no. Then you go to the next person on the list.

Reaching out to strangers can yield remarkable results. A woman once called The Group Room, a radio program about cancer hosted by Selma Schimmel, a breast and ovarian cancer survivor who founded the nonprofit Vital Options. The caller was terrified about an upcoming surgery for vaginal cancer. She didn’t know how she’d find the strength to walk into Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. A listener called and said, “I’m a volunteer at Memorial. I will meet her in the lobby. She does not have to go alone.”

The web can also fill a void. Greta Greer, director of survivor programs for the American Cancer Society, recalls a posting from a woman at the nonprofit’s Cancer Survivors Network. No one cares about me, the woman confessed. She was going to stop her treatment. By the next day, 25 e-respondents had urged her to keep up her chemotherapy regimen. She did, and later wrote, “These people saved my life.”

A support group can create a network of newfound friends. But groups are not for everyone. The solitary cancer patient may not want to open up. A group member is not obligated to talk, experts point out. Merely listening to others talk about their cancer experience can be instructive and inspiring.

But not always. “Some people say, ‘I can’t stand to hear other people’s stories,’ ” says Jimmie Holland, MD, a psychiatrist at Sloan-Kettering. “If it helps, great. If it doesn’t, don’t go again.” She suggests sampling the range of therapeutic experiences aimed at cancer patients such as counseling, meditation, art, music, and dance therapy.

When there’s no one else around, a pet can offer solace. “My cat drove me to distraction during my treatment, demanding attention,” says Bill Hall of Seattle, who underwent 12 weeks of chemotherapy for lymphoma. “But having to care for something other than yourself was, in the long run, more beneficial than words can express. Having Chloe crawl up on my chest and take a nap is heaven.”

As for studies that report how hard cancer is for independent souls, well, it is hard. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. “I’m always impressed with how courageous people are, how amazingly well they handle an awful situation,” says Holland.


So if you know of anyone who is alone and facing a diagnosis of cancer, please consider what you can do to support them. They may be lonely and afraid and scared to reach out and look for that help. No one should have to face cancer alone.