Most people are familiar with the devastating physical effects of cancer. It's rare to find someone whose life hasn't been affected by it in some way—whether indirectly, through a friend or relative, or directly. But what many people don't know is that the mental and emotional repercussions of cancer can be just as insidious as its physical side effects—and often much harder to recognize and address.
In addition to the fear and stress of facing a life-threatening illness and extensive, painful medical treatments, many cancer patients feel isolated and lonely. Often they no longer have the energy or ability to participate in social events or activities or the people in their lives cannot fully understand what they're going through. For many breast cancer patients dealing with such feelings, pet companionship offers great comfort.
Loneliness: Health Consequences and Negative Impact
The connection between cancer and loneliness is even more concerning in light of the research showing that loneliness comes with its own set of health-related consequences, including substance abuse, depression, and heart problems. In addition, loneliness isn't necessarily tied to the amount of social contact. Even a cancer patient with loving caregivers and a supportive network of friends and family can experience loneliness and stress.
Even though most research around cancer focuses on prevention and treatment, cancer survivorship, which covers the unique experience and risks associated with being a cancer survivor, is receiving more attention. According to experts, loneliness is just as crucial for survivors as it is for cancer patients. For example, one study showed a significant correlation between loneliness and recurrence for breast cancer survivors.
The Benefits of Pets for Cancer Patients and Survivors
For cancer patients and survivors suffering from the effects of loneliness, one potential solution may be a drive to the local animal shelter. The health benefits of owning a pet are widely recognized by now; among them, the CDC lists things such as decreased blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced feelings of stress and loneliness, and increased physical fitness.
In addition to providing unconditional love and much-needed physical contact, having a pet may come with the added benefit of giving life a sense of purpose and structure for cancer patients and survivors. Caring for a pet can supply an external sense of motivation and responsibility for people who might otherwise be feeling hopeless. Even for cancer patients and survivors who don't own a pet, animal-assisted therapy during treatment can help to alleviate the pain or boredom of treatments and lift their spirits.
While many pets can provide a sense of companionship, dogs tend to show up most frequently in discussions of the therapeutic benefits of pets. For example, you may have heard stories about dogs reportedly being able to sniff out cancer. But, in addition to their diagnostic capabilities, dogs can help their owners in various other ways.
For example, dogs need exercise, which means their owners are likely to be more active—physical exercise results in the release of endorphins, which can help with pain management and mood improvement. In addition, just petting dogs has been shown to result in decreased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased levels of oxytocin (the feel-good hormone).
It's worth noting that, while pets and animal therapy can have enormous benefits for people experiencing the effects of cancer, these options might not be a good idea for everyone, especially patients or survivors who are immuno-compromised. Because of the potential risk of catching diseases from animals, patients should consult with their doctors about whether having a pet is safe and which animals are most suitable for them.
SurvivingBreastCancer.org (SBC) is dedicated to supporting those affected by breast cancer and their families. SBC provides an educational and virtual community platform to help breast cancer patients, survivors, and their families navigate prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Check out our resources or consider donating today!
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