Dealing with cancer loneliness? Why isolation is tough and how to cope.

Posted: November 22, 2021


Mental Health






Cancer loneliness is real. Isolation during your treatment can be hard, but here’s how to make it suck less.

Whether you’re a Bobby Vinton or Akon fan, cancer can have you feeling like Mr. (or Ms.) Lonely. Between treatments, transplants, and being immunocompromised from it all, cancer isolation is a reality for most patients. Oh, and do we even have to mention the global pandemic

We hear plenty about hair loss, low appetite, and fatigue. But loneliness is a painful, significant side effect of cancer that isn’t discussed. 

Cancer loneliness hits different.  

It’s not like being grounded or eating alone on your lunch break. Cancer loneliness is intense, sometimes without an end in sight. Between cancer ghosting, social circle FOMO, and strict hospital COVID restrictions, loneliness during treatment can quickly lead to depression. The pandemic has shown us that much. 

Older teens and young adults have especially been struggling with feelings of loneliness and depression during this pandemic. Having cancer is hard enough without the collective trauma of social-distancing and quarantines. Isolation is new to a lot of people with COVID-19, but not for people with cancer

Remember the “why” of isolation during cancer treatment.

You probably already know this, but there’s a good reason for spending time alone to lower your health risks during treatment. But it doesn’t make it any easier. 

Isolation and quarantine help protect cancer patients from infection, including by maintaining white blood cell count for chemotherapy. Common reasons for cancer isolation may include:

  • Compromised immune systems

  • COVID-19

  • Post-transplant (e.g., stem cell or bone marrow)

The reality is, isolation can cause loneliness, which may feel even worse than what you’re protecting against.

Address mental health concerns head-on. 

Isolation isn’t fun and is akin to solitary confinement. It can take a huge mental toll, too. Feelings of loneliness, depression, overwhelm, poor sleep, resentment, or anxiety may be cropping up for you unexpectedly. 

Studies have shown spending so much time alone is associated with an increased tendency to skip doctor appointments and meals, or make poor decisions about treatment. We know that’s not good self-care, bud. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by these challenges, it’s essential to address this with your healthcare team. Consider seeking the support of an expert, like a psychologist or social worker, to help you cope. 

Fortunately, virtual appointments and resources have become widely available with COVID-19. (Hey, that’s one plus, right?) Ask your doc about virtual counseling options like Teledoc, Talkspace, or BetterHelp.

Embrace coping techniques for dealing with all the extra alone time.

Okay, so loneliness sucks. But what can you do about it? Here’s how to make the most of this time.

Stick to business as usual when possible. 

Try to incorporate things from your “normal” daily routine. Get up, get dressed (in comfies, of course), and do something to jumpstart your day, like write a journal entry or watch a new show.

Don’t know what else to do? Pick up a new hobby that supports your current physical and mental capacity. Maybe it’s a 100-day project with your caregivers, like Suleika Jaouad describes in her book Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted. Psst: this was our March Book Club pick! 

Document this time, even if it’s with small, daily gratitude notes. You’ll be thankful to have this recollection later.

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