By, William Laferriere, Survivingbreastcancer.org board member
Hello darkness my old friend....
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left it’s seeds while I was sleeping.
Fools, said I you do not know, how
Silence like a cancer grows…
Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence
While hosting an exhibit booth recently
with survivingbreastcancer.org founder Laura Carfang at the CelebASIANS Breast Cancer Awareness benefit in Boston, MA, I met a survivor who approached with the plaintive cry that “I am so lonely”.
I walked around the exhibit table, hugged her and said that she had come to the right place, exemplified by our raison d'etre @survivingbreastcancer.org, where we attempt to empower breast cancer survivors from day one.
I suggested that she join our Fb group and introduce herself and enjoin our community of Survivors.
Loneliness is a complex and unusually unpleasant response to isolation, and ergo, a lack of companionship.
A great Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby opined:
All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people,
Where do they all belong?
The affects of loneliness are felt by many of our vaunted breast cancer community.
Early on at the September, 2018 Living Beyond Breast Cancer Conference in Philadelphia, PA an elderly woman approached our exhibit table and talked at length about her diagnosis and long term treatment and survivability, but then said she mostly came over for hugs and an embrace from Laura and myself. We gladly obliged and she asked us what we we @ survivingbreastcancer.org were all about. I gave her the impromptu response that “We look to inject positivity into the fabric of a heinous diagnosis”.
At a white water raft trip last summer in the Poconos, along with the Staten Island Cancer Tamer gang we shared a communal experience of rafting, zip lining and Soul Re-engineering’s Claudia and Jim’s incredible Shamanic, Akashic Lakota chanting/readings/cleansing on the waterfront.
At the end of the day we performed a group hug. One of the survivors, currently a second time stage 4 BC diagnosis at the age of 74, held onto me for a prolonged hug and told me that we had just made her so incredibly happy.
We’ve also met survivors whose spouses couldn’t handle the impact-fulness of a BC diagnosis and treatment; many verbalized that their family and friends couldn’t handle either. One woman contacted me through our website Caregiver Consultation Platform and informed me that her spouse had an affair while she was in the hospital having her surgery. He proceeded to leave her for the other woman shortly thereafter. I suggested that by just reaching out she was halfway back from the despair of loneliness and invited her to join us as well.
Laura and I have discussed these, and other similar stories of loneliness, and despair, and how valuable community, embracing, and hugging were and how these consistently contributed to enhancing the health and wellness of a survivor.
Studies (credit below) have found that part of the reason for this
loneliness is because the person with breast cancer is experiencing situations and emotions that few others can understand.
Experiencing loneliness, especially chronic loneliness, may aggravate the cancer. In fact these studies “have determined that rats who were isolated experienced increased incidences of breast cancer. The tumors were significantly larger than in the rats who were not isolated. The researchers suggested that people who experience high degrees of loneliness may also experience greater degrees of breast cancer as well.”
Therefore, lonely women could be at greater risk of breast cancer returning or exacerbating. Scientists have shown the stress and anxiety caused by ‘social isolation’ can speed up the growth of potentially deadly tumors.
Other studies have shown that social support and friendship can boost a woman’s chances of recovering from breast cancer, and that the lonely and depressed are more vulnerable to a host of serious diseases.
Warner (credit below) identifies the relationship between loneliness and decreased immune functioning as well as increased inflammation, all of which may negatively impact attempts at treating breast cancer.
Even after a person goes into remission, loneliness continues to linger. Mary Rosedale (credit below), in her research talks about survivor loneliness of breast cancer survivors.
“Their experience of loneliness included several themes such as emerging consciousness, in which women talked about the ongoing feelings of loneliness despite others being around and transcending time, where family and friends often moved on from the breast cancer experience whereas the women were still dealing with it. Often this would happen after the first year, when people assumed that the women have moved on.”
Misunderstanding “was another theme that focused around how even those closest to them misunderstood how breast cancer changed their lives. One other important theme was withholding truth, which discussed how these women would censor what they say, and not communicate what they are really thinking or feeling. Withholding truth was a form of protection from having to hear feedback from others; feedback that is often hurtful, such as confirming a fear or having others feel sorry for them.”
So, what can be done for those who are currently experiencing or have experienced breast cancer and loneliness?
The process of connecting to others who are experiencing similar conditions is a common thread among support/self-help groups. The powerful component of these groups is the ability to be authentic, to reveal one’s fears, desires, hopes, and concerns to others who “get it” because they have similar experiences. In those groups, it’s okay to say, “I am scared about a relapse,” because there are others in the room who are scared as well.
The point at which a person can become authentic, vulnerable, and truly connect with others is the point at which loneliness begins to disappear.
Support groups are an excellent way of doing that, but certainly paying attention to feelings of loneliness and making deliberate attempts to be authentic, vulnerable, and to connect to important loved ones is also a great strategy.
In closing a look at loneliness through the eyes of a poet:
I shiver melancholia,
entombed with my winter blues
in the dark dreamless hollow of my frowning igloo.
Draped in decor of dispirited drear
I wear a wistful woebegone fog,
an overcoat of overcast moods
sown of sneering sunless, scentless days.
I weep wall to wall
in the long light-less nights alone with my
my psyche withers
a little more each dull day, I shrivel.
I shiver sadness,
my colorless tears cry out loud for color;
yearning for watermelon sunsets, pink sands
and swirls of marigold kisses,
for rainbows to color my lackluster laughter
and fireworks to celebrate in my mirthless eyes,
for Sol’s warm hands to tenderly undress and caress me
and lay bare my soul straitjacketed by winter blues...
January 4, 2018
Please see the below links for blog contributions.
• The Harmful Connection Between Breast Cancer and Loneliness ... www.psychologytoday.com/blog/web-loneliness/...
The researchers suggested that people who experience high degrees of loneliness may also experience greater degrees of breast cancer as well. You can get a summary article here on the study .
• Cancer And Loneliness: The Vicious Cycle | The Breast Cancer ... blog.thebreastcancersite.greatergood.com/cancer...
And cancer sends a person to a unique place—suddenly everyday matters seem unimportant when forced to consider your own mortality. Cancer tends to focus a person on what’s truly important, and that may mean that relationships that worked before cancer no longer work during or after cancer.
• The Loneliness of Cancer | HuffPost www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-masters/the...
The Loneliness of Cancer. ... Even though I write about breast cancer now being treated as a "chronic disease" again, today's reality says that this cancer will kill me. I push those thoughts to ...
• Loneliness and breast cancer - 'Breast cancer treatment left ... www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/news/a579443/breast...
Loneliness and breast cancer - Battling breast cancer in rural Cumbria left me isolated and lonely. A teacher and mum of two is calling for more emotional support for those affected by breast cancer.
• Loneliness may sabotage breast cancer survival ... - CBS News www.cbsnews.com/news/loneliness-may-sabotage...
Loneliness may impede long-term breast cancer survival, a new study suggests. In the years after treatment, women who don’t have strong social ties are more likely to have their cancer return or ...
• Loneliness May Sabotage Breast Cancer Survival - WebMD www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/news/20161212/...
MONDAY, Dec. 12, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Loneliness may impede long-term breast cancer survival, a new study suggests. In the years after treatment, women who don't have strong social ties are ...