When Loneliness Makes Cancer Harder

lonely_by_frozenstardustI 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.