No one wants to hear those words. The implications of the physical and emotional trauma that will follow with treatments are a lot for anyone to take in. If you are lucky to have close friends and family, they will be sure to help out in any way they can. But even with friends and family around, a profound sense of loneliness may set in. Part of the reason for the loneliness is because the person with breast cancer is experiencing situations and emotions that few others can understand, unless they have had breast cancer themselves. How can you truly communicate the storm of feelings you are being bombarded with to others unless they themselves have been or are going through that storm. They can empathize, but that’s only up to a certain point. After that, it becomes difficult for them to truly understand and connect with the person’s experience.
Experiencing loneliness, especially chronic loneliness, may aggravate the cancer. In a study by McClintock, Conzen, Gehlert, Masi & Olopade (2005), they found that rats who were isolated experienced increased incidences of breast cancer. The tumors were significantly larger than 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. You can get a summary article here on the study. In his article, Warner identifies the relationship between loneliness and decreased immune functioning and 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, 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? An intervention study by Fukui, Koike, Ooba, and Uchitomi (2003) is illustrative of what can be done. A fundamental aspect of this program, the researchers highlighted, was the ability of the breast cancer patients to connect with one another both during the intervention sessions as well as outside the sessions. 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. These groups also offer very practical advice and advocacy, knowledge that they may not otherwise be able to access. Certainly Fukui et al (2003) provided some of this through a structured intervention, but support groups in general often do this, albeit in a more unstructured way.
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.