Feelings of isolation are common among patients with cancer. Because their immune systems are often weakened by their treatment, many patients with cancer self-isolate and avoid face-to-face interactions with others.
Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new wrinkle to the isolation experienced by patients with cancer. In addition to minimizing direct contact with others, social distancing guidelines made routine medical appointments and treatments even more difficult. Many patients with cancer were forced to go alone to their appointments, which added to their sense of isolation and removed much-needed emotional support.
According to a study published in Cancer in April 2021, more than half (53%) of patients with cancer surveyed were feeling lonely during COVID-19. The lead author of the study pointed out that these feelings are very common, especially during the pandemic. COVID-19 has further affected a patient’s ability to cope with stress and loneliness, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
Although COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, risks remain. Patients with cancer still need to be careful about minimizing exposure to the coronavirus and to other infectious diseases, but they can take certain steps to overcome feelings of isolation, as outlined below.
Practice self-care. Self-neglect happens more often while in social isolation. Speak with your doctor about your diet to see how you could improve it, and about starting a safe exercise program. Create a daily routine that includes the basics, such as getting up each morning by a certain time, bathing, eating 3 meals, exercising, and communicating often with family and friends.
Go outside every day, weather permitting. Although social distancing still applies, outdoor activities are far safer and could introduce you to more people. Embrace outdoor activities like walking, biking, gardening, swimming, or even rock-climbing. Start a project around the house and share updates with loved ones. After all, fresh air and movement are at times the best medicine.
Volunteer. Volunteering is extremely rewarding. It can give patients with cancer a sense of purpose and increase self-esteem. It can also add more structure to a daily routine and create opportunities to build friendships. Some people even use volunteering as a stepping-stone to returning to the workforce. Volunteers often feel that they’re part of something bigger. Making a difference for others could very well lead to positive changes in your own emotional well-being.
Express your feelings. Isolation sometimes progresses into more serious health issues, because the feelings tied to isolation remain suppressed. Consider sharing your personal story. What makes you sad? What are your concerns and fears? Do you feel guilty? Are you angry? What tends to trigger negative feelings? How do you cope with these feelings? If you don’t feel comfortable sharing these feelings with a close friend or a family member, consider counseling. This can help you to identify the underlying causes of your feelings so you could address them more effectively.
Is it normal to feel isolated as a patient with cancer? Yes. Does that “normalcy” make it any easier? Absolutely not.
Take care of yourself, and take a more proactive role in your well-being. Find out what types of activities work best for you. Most important, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling with loneliness.