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Why is having cancer so isolating

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.

Humans are programmed by evolution to connect with others, our survival is dependent on it and we can’t we feel lonely. I found one of the more emotionally difficult aspects of having cancer was the excruciating isolation and loneliness I experienced.

The first few days and weeks after diagnosis were busy surviving the treatment timetable. It was during this time the differences in my life and those of my friends and family gradually began to appear with the gap becoming larger and larger with each passing day. I knew where they were, their time table. They were in the park, at a swimming lesson, meeting for a coffee. I knew what they were talking about, teething toddlers and planning their next pregnancy. They on the other hand had no idea what the chemo suite looked like or the fear and then anger swirling in my brain. I was terrified of not surviving, how could say this to their happy smiling faces. As our days and thoughts became progressively divergent my isolation and then loneliness increased and this lack of connection and purpose had a detrimental impact on my emotional health.

It was a vicious cycle because the more isolated and detached from my life I felt the more I detached and the loneliness increased. My changing physical looks also played a part in this. My hair was falling out, my waist was getting bigger and my skin was a peculiar shade of ill health. I felt ill for most of the time and just didn’t have the energy or motivation to arrange meet ups and when I did I felt I had become an awkward impostor in their lives. Telling them what my life was really like became a block to my connecting and so the disconnection continued.

I spiralled until I reached rock bottom and I knew that I had reached that point because I couldn’t function. My mind was full. At that point I knew I needed help.

I joined a couple of cancer support groups which I hoped would resolve the issue of cancer loneliness and isolation. But for me at that time they didn’t, I didn’t want to connect with people through an illness I didn’t want to have. Through trial and error I worked out what did work.

I began walking round our village no matter how ill I felt or awful I looked or how inclement the weather was. The rhythmical movement of walking forced me to connect with the ground. My eyes were required to look around me, houses, gardens, the grey winter skies. I was connecting with the world for 30 minutes a day.

The Breast Cancer Care on line support forum (there many others available for both breast cancer and other types of cancer) became my life line to the cancer world I didn’t want to be part of and yet could not leave. Here I was able to see I wasn’t the only 38 year old who was scared of dying of breast cancer and leaving two young children. At the time there was something about the anonymity which was helpful for me to create a connection in. The forum normalised my experience and lessoned my isolation, I could log on at any time and feel connected to others experiencing similar.

I know counselling isn’t for everyone but it gave me the space to rant and rage providing a weekly opportunity for my intense and uncomfortable feelings to be expressed in. This freed up the rest of the week to be more of who I was rather than be consumed by a torrent of unexpressed feelings which created isolation.

As I gradually recovered physically I was able to reconnect with my life and the park trips and lunches returned and so did I, Bex was back. The more did and the more I reengaged with my life the more I felt connected and as the isolation lessoned so did the loneliness.

Loneliness and isolation are another reason why cancer is difficult to recover from, cancer takes us away from the lives we chose and love both physically and emotionally. While you are being treated and recovering from cancer there are numerous way to keep connected the life you had albeit on a smaller scale. For some this connection maybe through their work, faith, family, friends for others through a goal, social media or interests, it will be as unique as the individual. Try to connect with your life each and every day.

What have you been isolated from while you had cancer? What does it feel like to be isolated? What can you connect to and how? What does it feel like when you feel connected?



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