In my introductory blog post, Survivorship 101, I defined the concept of cancer survivorship. Survivorship refers to the physical, psychological, social, and economic issues of living with cancer, from diagnosis until the end of life. In this post I would like to delve deeper into some of the social and psychological aspects of having cancer. For example, a major cancer diagnosis often causes you to view the world differently—things that once seemed enormously important may lose significance and become almost trivial. Personally, I’ve discovered that physical attractiveness, material possessions and social status all matter less to me now. These things frequently seem to fade into irrelevance as I confront a life-threatening illness. Meanwhile, my relationships with other people, discovering ways that I can make a difference in the world and learning more about the essence of who I am are currently at the forefront of my agenda and have an extremely high priority to me at the moment.
Like many people dealing with cancer I’ve sometimes felt isolated from those not going through a similar experience. Relatives, friends and acquaintances mean well, but they are unable to fully empathize or to understand certain aspects of what I am going through. Many cancer survivors will attest to the fact that there are times when they are surrounded by people and still feel very alone. This type of emotional isolation occurs when you discover that you can no longer relate to people in the same way you did before. Things that were important to you in the past are no longer important to you, and your friends and family don’t understand why you have changed so much. I’ve noticed that the books I read, the movies or television that I watch and the activities that I like to participate in have all changed a fair amount since my cancer diagnosis, so have the topics that I prefer to discuss. This transformation has affected my personal relationships and how I feel about those closest to me.
According to the Alberta CancerBridges team, such deep-seated feelings of isolation have been well documented in the cancer care literature. There is even a term that has been created to describe this experience—it’s known as survivor loneliness. Last summer I watched a rare long-term survivor of ovarian cancer address the crowd at an Ovarian Cancer Canada fundraiser. I admire her ability to speak eloquently in public about her decade long struggle. Throughout her speech she had nothing but praise for her friends and family, I could sense that she is profoundly grateful for the unconditional love and support that they have given her over the years. But paradoxically, the former nurse also characterized her personal battle with cancer as a “long lonely journey.” Survivor loneliness can take many forms and occur for a number of reasons. It’s typically felt as a profound sense of isolation from the people around you. As one battles cancer, this sense of isolation can arise from a feeling that you are alone in your awareness of mortality.
Since my cancer diagnosis two years ago, I’ve been required to think about my mortality. I’ve also had to tend to many practical matters that I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to deal with until I was much older. While everyone around me carries on with their lives, I’ve had to stop and reflect on some of the deeper questions of life that others have the luxury of ignoring. Individuals diagnosed with cancer often find themselves contemplating existential questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Who am I? These issues are brought to the forefront of your mind when facing a potentially deadly disease. Sometimes I feel frustrated by the fact that most things that my friends and family care about seem fairly trivial to me now. For example, they got cut off in traffic, they had a disagreement with a coworker or their favorite esthetics studio is getting ready to raise its prices.
Cancer experts and psychologists generally agree that the most effective way to combat isolation and survivor loneliness is to connect with other people who are undergoing a similar ordeal. There are numerous support groups and organizations throughout Canada specializing in the extremely complex social and emotional aspects of cancer.
Cancer shakes your illusions of immortality. It robs you of the sense of invincibility and innocence that once protected you. But what replaces that feeling is infinitely more valuable: a new awareness and a mature understanding of both life and death.
From Picking Up the Pieces: Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer
by Sherri Magee and Kathy Scalzo