When Loneliness Makes Cancer Harder
I was blessed to have the unfailing support of my boyfriend (now husband) and the tender care of my mum to help me through the rigors of cancer treatment. And yet I still felt a loneliness and sadness which intensified when treatment ended. How much more that loneliness must be amplified when you are even more alone. Scorchy Barrington has written movingly in the past about how cancer is hard when you are alone.
Last week I was sent a press release by Macmillan Cancer Support about their new study which reveals that cancer patients who are lonely are three times more likely to struggle to follow their treatment plan than those who aren’t lonely. [i].
The research findings show that among cancer patients who are lonely:
- 1 in 30, an estimated 2,100 skipped treatment appointments
- 1 in 17, an estimated 4,200 didn’t take medicine as they should
- 1 in 8, an estimated 9,000 were unable to pick up their prescriptions
- 1 in 11, an estimated 6,200 refused some types of treatment
Worryingly, 1 in 20 (5%) lonely cancer patients refused treatment all together as illustrated by this comment from Mabel Macartney, 61, from Cheshire, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011:
None of my family or friends live near me, so although I could stay with a friend after surgery, when I was told I’d need six months of chemotherapy the only thing going through my mind was: How am I going to cope? I couldn’t ask anyone to stay with me for such a long time or afford to be off work with no one else to help pay the mortgage. So I turned the chemotherapy treatment down. It was a horrible situation to be in, alone with life-changing decisions to make and I know I risked the chance of the cancer returning.
Macmillan believes there are a number of reasons why lonely cancer patients may be unable to complete treatment. Jacqui Graves, Head of Health and Social Care at Macmillan Cancer Support says:
Lonely cancer patients may not have the practical support they need to get out of the house and attend their appointments, or pick up prescriptions, especially if they can’t drive or live in a remote area. Or they may feel emotionally overwhelmed and too anxious to attend appointments or have treatment. We know patients who have only attended appointments because friends or family persuaded them.
Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, says: “We already know that loneliness may be as harmful as smoking but this research shows for the first time that it is particularly toxic to cancer patients.
It is simply unacceptable that so many cancer patients feel emotionally alone or lack practical support to such an extent that they are missing appointments, unable to take their medicine or even refusing treatment, and that it’s putting their recovery at risk. That’s why we’re calling on health professionals to identify lonely cancer patients and make them aware of the support available so that they don’t have to go through their cancer alone.
Now I know several friends with cancer and little family or social support and there is no suggestion they are not following through on their treatment. However, we can’t ignore the evidence that there are some for whom being alone is a reason not to complete treatment. As Mr Devane says this is unacceptable. It occurs to me that, like Mabel, earlier in this report, some patients may be too private or proud to ask for help. If you suspect that someone you know could do with some practical help and support, then please consider reaching out to them today. We get so caught up in our own lives we can easily miss those opportunities to make a real difference in someone else’s life.
1 Estimates based on Macmillan Cancer Support and Ipsos MORI research into isolation and people living with cancer.
How terribly sad.
when I was in intensive treatment for uterine cancer, diagnosed just 8 weeks after Hugh died, the terror of being alone for the first time along with the unspeakable loneliness for HIM, was worse than having cancer. luckily, I had good support. luckily, I am now NED. but the fear of that aspect of being so lonely if I should have a recurrence makes my blood run cold. though I don’t want to think about it, I shall. because having a back-up plan is only sensible. I so appreciate your compassionate urging to be aware of others who might need a helping hand. thank you so much for posting about such an important topic.
This is a very real and serious problem for many people with no easy answers. Thanks for shedding light on it.
I am grateful for this piece. I went through cancer alone, no boyfriend, no mom. While I didn’t miss any treatments because I drove myself there, it was hard to find someone to come for the surgery. Even now, I am due for a colonoscopy, and have no one to take me.I feel bad asking friends as they work. This is a thoughtful piece.
The quote from Mabel Macartney is heart wrenching. It’s so sad that anyone would have to make this kind of decision. Being isolated in our society is harmful in so many ways and it’s scary to see such large numbers of affected cancer patients. Thank you for this reminder to reach out to those around us who may be affected.
Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. No one should have to stand in the harsh glare of illness alone. As a society we are failing each other. Let’s hope this report will be the wake up call we need to reach out and support those who need it
Marie, this is a very important post, indeed. I am definitely not lonely but I have felt so alone at different times in my treatment. And at those times, my heart pangs for people who do not have the support that I do.
These are very sobering statistics, and it is heart-breaking to be alone during cancer, its treatment, and its aftermath. I am one of those who was alone during much of this medical nightmare. My then-husband, as you know, did not support me. Family and friends abandoned me, and that felt worse than having the cancer itself. Luckily, I did have some great friends who stood by me, as well as my brother and aunt.
Very sobering and it makes my heart ache just remembering the desperation of loneliness I felt. Thanks for bring these statistics to us.