It’s All So Trivial: Emotional Isolation and Cancer Patients

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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.

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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.

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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

Survivorship 101

My health had always been tremendously good, and then one afternoon in November 2011 I received an unexpected diagnosis of both uterine and ovarian cancer. In hindsight words such as devastating, terrifying, and life-altering seem inadequate to describe the magnitude of that experience—my daily existence was shattered. Sometimes it’s still as if I’m trapped in an appalling dream, a nightmarish reality that to date has encompassed three major abdominal surgeries and five cycles of chemotherapy. As with countless other cancer survivors I have asked “Why me?” while I’ve struggled to find anything positive about living with such an affliction. I have accepted the likelihood that my life may never be exactly the same; I must adjust to a “new normal” as day by day I contend with the consequences of an insidious, spiteful, and often fatal disease.

In this blog I will be writing about various aspects of my cancer journey. I have chosen to call it The Teal Diaries, since teal is the colour used to represent awareness of gynecological cancers. While pink ribbons are strongly associated with breast cancer, significantly fewer people realize that ovarian cancer survivors, and those who wish to support them, wear teal ribbons. If there is less public awareness regarding ovarian and endometrial  cancer, I suspect that it’s because they are both less prevalent and have a significantly higher mortality rate than breast cancer.

I’ve waged my relentless battle for over a year now, I currently seem to have the upper hand and my doctors indicate that they are cautiously optimistic regarding my prognosis. Since the beginning of my cancer experience there have been moments of epiphany and numerous opportunities for personal reflection. Being that this is my initial blog post, I want to share a few of the survivorship lessons that I’ve experienced over the past fourteen months. According to professionals in the cancer field, survivorship is living with and beyond cancer. Survivorship covers the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, from diagnosis until the end of life. This is what I’ve learned so far.

You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only option you have left.

I certainly don’t aspire to become a legend like  Terry Fox or to be anything resembling a saint or a cancer hero. But still, I’ve discovered inner qualities and personal strengths I never appreciated or properly acknowledged in myself. Subjected to the ultimate test, I’ve sometimes shocked myself with my capacity to overcome adversity and to confront physical pain and suffering. As one of the approximately 17,000 Canadian women living with ovarian cancer, I obviously know firsthand how it impacts a life. For survivors there is tremendous emotional pressure, along with social and financial turmoil.

There are moments when you have the impression that your world is spinning violently out of control. The fundamental paradox is that I’m often able to feel a sense of power, combined with courage and self-assurance. It’s as if I’m standing in life’s Category 5 hurricane and remaining resolute, steadfast and unbroken. “Okay cancer, you ruthless bastard, attack me with all the intensity you’ve got! I will still transcend you and the pure malevolence that you represent,” I sometimes tell myself. Some pundits would consider this type of resolve impressive, especially as demonstrated by a socially introverted, physically petite woman, such as myself.

Appreciate the flowers in your own backyard.

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I reached an unparalleled low physically and emotionally last year, during the spring of 2012. By May there were potentially life-threatening complications due to my rigorous cancer treatments. Vomiting and in pain, I was transported to the emergency room through early rush hour traffic. It was a bright May morning when I entered the doors of Calgary’s largest medical centre and was admitted suffering from a bowel blockage. I acknowledge that at first I literally wanted to die rather than face what was happening. Nothing had prepared me for the invasive medical procedures that I would endure in the coming weeks or for the length of my hospitalization.

Forty-eight agonizing days elapsed, during which time I received virtually all of my nutrition through a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC or PIC line). On June 18, 2012, intestinal surgery was skillfully performed. When I awoke in the recovery room I sensed that my crisis was at last resolved. Although only half-conscious, I was filled with elation as they informed me that the procedure to correct my obstruction had been successful. The primary cause was established to be scar tissue from my previous operations and now my digestive system was expected to function normally again. Most of all, I was comforted and reassured by the fact that my cancer had not visibly metastasized to other regions of my body.

My discharge from the hospital ultimately took place on a balmy summer afternoon; the clothes I had worn nearly two months earlier felt hot and loose fitting. I was so weak from my ordeal that I struggled to walk just 10 or 20 metres, but I was in awe as I observed how the seasons had changed and nearly everything had been transformed. I can still remember the blissful journey home and my sense of anticipation during that short, but very emancipating, commute. Even the air filling my lungs was like a breath of freedom.

Upon arriving at the small bungalow where I live, something magical occurred. My eyes surveyed the backyard and the unexpected sight of poppies in full bloom completely overwhelmed me. It was as if I were seeing them for the first time. I remain inspired by their exquisiteness, vaguely encouraged by the realization that their brilliant orange petals and intricately designed purple centres will never appear ordinary to me again. I’m certain that from now on, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the phenomenal appearance of the poppies each June!

Learn how to embrace the new pretty.

There are literally thousands of magazine articles, journal studies and online resources devoted to the topic of sexuality and women’s cancers. How a woman copes and deals with the changes to her body are unique for each survivor, of course such factors as age and relationship status come into play. Studies have confirmed that the most prevalent issue for those diagnosed with uterine or ovarian cancer is a sense of profound loss. Psychologically I continue to mourn the demise of my reproductive organs and the loss of what I always perceived as an impeccably strong and healthy body.

Throughout my cancer ordeal I have felt moments of contempt, occasionally mixed with rage. I find it easy to despise a culture that is inclined to objectify women—placing intense pressure on us to possess a perfect body. I’ve become acutely sensitive to the media, the advertising industry and to what I believe are ridiculous and superficial standards of female beauty.

Belly Pic

There have been circumstances when I’ve waged war using humour or an “in your face” attitude. During my convalescence from one of my cancer surgeries I recall being engaged in a discussion with my mother while sorting through a stack of mail. I paused as I unearthed a catalogue for a major Canadian department store, cringing at the sight of the cover. Predictably it was flaunting an image of a model with an unblemished face and body. The New Pretty, the caption breathlessly announced. All of a sudden I grinned mischievously, as in one defiant move I turned and flashed my scarred and stapled abdomen. “I’ll show them the new pretty,” I boldly declared.