Being Alone With Cancer Is Harder Than You Think

Being alone is hard. We all know that. In fact, one in five Americans are estimated to suffer from persistent loneliness. What happens when you feel alone AND have cancer? Dealing with such a serious diagnosis, particularly at a younger age, can lead to loneliness and feeling distinctly different from your peers.

Many single survivors shared their stories for my book, and the consensus was that when you are sick, it is much harder to be alone. Here is what a couple of them had to say:

      "I've always hated how society makes such a big deal about being single, like it's so pathetic how your self worth is tied to that. I never felt that way, aside from occasional loneliness, I could function just fine and was happy. Getting cancer was another story, though. Without a strong support network, it was difficult, and I had to admit for the first time that my single status was a detriment."

    "I felt so lonely. Friends and family can’t understand what you are going through and aren't there when you have insomnia and the loneliness hits hard. It would be nice if there were support groups for single young people."

Nearly 80% of the single survivors I surveyed reported feeling alone, and 77% cited connections with other cancer survivors as a strong need. On top of the fact that being sick can lead to increased feelings of loneliness, feeling chronically lonely can also lead to illness - talk about a double-edged sword!

Research has shown that loneliness can impact stress, health, and immunity. According to Dr. Dean Ornish in his book Love & Survival, "Our survival depends on the healing power of love, intimacy, and relationships." When we lack connections, we suffer. He cites numerous studies about the key role played by family, friends, spouses, and social connections such as church/synagogue or other community associations in fighting illness. If you are single (or even if you're not) and battling cancer or another illness, connecting with the people in your life, or finding new sources of support, may be one of the most important things you can do for yourself.

In a survey I conducted of 100 single survivors, these were the most common sources of support reported:

    • 50% family (survivors cited them as really helpful)*


    • 37% friends


    • 35% church community


    • 31% coworkers (the latter three were cited as somewhat helpful)

*Half of the participants cited that romantic partners barely acknowledged what they were going through, and weren't a major source of support, though most were not serious relationships.
So, how can you get what you need?

It is so important to be a good receiver. Many of us (especially women) tend to be so good at giving and nurturing others that we can have a difficult time receiving help, or even a compliment. We deflect offers of support, don't want to talk about our problems and sometimes fail to recognize our own needs. For a period in my life, the scariest question I could be asked was, "What can I do for you?". Receiving just wasn't comfortable for me, and feeling "needy" was downright painful.

There is not a much better teacher in receiving and asking for help than cancer. When I was diagnosed, I knew I had met my match but didn't realize that it would be one of the best learning opportunities I could ever have. As a single woman living alone far away from family and CEO of a small company, I knew I was not going to be able to manage this one alone. As people began asking how they could help, I had to sit down and figure out how to answer them, because otherwise, they may stop offering.

I made a long list of all the things I thought I would need, from doctor visit support to hugs, books I wanted to read to my favorite ice cream, and everything in-between. You can read the entire list, and the email that I sent to everyone I know and download the entire first chapter of my book, titled "You Are Not Alone", for free here. As I shared updates online, it was easier to be upbeat and positive, and I struggled with sharing the tough times. It was hard for me to admit when I was lonely, in pain, scared or hurt about people not showing up for me.

It was really easy to notice the people who weren't there or who didn’t seem to get how hard everything was. Lots of friends dropped off the face of the earth. However, it was also easy to be grateful for all the people who did show up (even if they weren't the ones I was closest to or expected), and to understand that we all have our reasons for being uncomfortable around illness or not knowing how to be supportive.

One of my favorite exercises involves taking stock of the communities that you are a part of. Social media makes it pretty easy now to see and categorize everyone in your life, but just in case you are still feeling disconnected, it can be empowering to make a list of the different groups you belong to (now or in the past) and all the people you know within them. You may be surprised how many people are out there who love you, and would want to know how they can best support you.

Even if you don't have a huge support network, there are so many services now for people with cancer: people will give you a ride to the doctor, clean your house, deliver meals, provide coaching or other forms of support, massage or Reiki and so much more. You can even learn to surf, kayak, climb a mountain and have other adventures with fellow survivors. My book lists tons of resources, and new ones pop up every day.

Cancer can be isolating, but it can also be a great reminder of how very much we are loved.

How did you cope with feelings of loneliness during or even after cancer? Share in the comments below or sign up here!