Studies Show Loneliness is a Major Risk Factor in Illness
Everyone goes through cancer alone. No one else, even the most devoted caregiver, can really understand what it’s like for the patient. However, when you are single and making major decisions about treatment, employment, insurance and financial issues, and worried about who will take care of you when you’re feeling your worst, you can feel really, really alone.
“Feeling alone is far worse than having cancer.” The first line of my book speaks to this, and many studies have shown that loneliness is actually a predictor of worse outcomes for cancer patients, especially men. Feeling alone is one of the most destructive emotions we can have. Research has shown that loneliness can impact stress, health and immunity. According to Drs. Dean Ornish and Lissa Rankin, our survival depends on the healing power of love, intimacy, and relationships. When we lack those connections, we suffer. They both cite numerous studies about the key role played by family, friends, spouses and social connections such as church/synagogue or other community associations in fighting illness.
However, it is important to note that loneliness and singleness don’t have to go hand in hand, and that many married people also feel profoundly lonely, especially if their relationship is unhappy. In fact, research suggests that singles living in urban settings are MORE connected than married people who tend to spend time mainly as a couple while singles are more likely to be out in the community socializing, doing service and otherwise connecting with the larger world. Singles are also more likely to be contributing to society in big ways through inventions and startups, founding nonprofits and volunteering. I discovered that most of the organizations serving young adult cancer survivors were founded by single people.
If you are single and battling cancer, connecting with the people in your life, or finding new sources of support, may be one of the most important things you can do for yourself. Ask for what you need. Whether it’s talking on the phone more regularly, going out for a walk, sharing coffee once a week, visiting or hosting a friend or sibling for a weekend, joining a support group, participating in group meditation or yoga classes, serving others directly, or even asking someone to move in and care for you. Do what you can to connect with the world around you, especially those you love the most.
In a survey of 100 single survivors, these were the most common sources of support:
- 50% Family (survivors cited them as really helpful)
- 37% Friends
- 35% Church Community
- 31% Co-Workers (the latter three were cited as somewhat helpful)
Half of participants said that romantic partners barely acknowledged what they were going through and weren’t a major source of support, though most were not serious relationships.
It turns out that lack of support can be a predictor of shorter survival times and an increased chance of recurrence. The most striking study was conducted by Dr. David Spiegel and colleagues at Stanford in 1989. Published in the British journal The Lancet, they studied women with metastatic breast cancer. Spiegel initially set out to prove that social connection did not have an impact on survival. Participants in the study were divided into two groups – both of which received the same conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. One group also met together for 90 minutes each week over the course of a year to talk about the impact of the disease on their lives. They became comfortable enough to share their feelings openly, including fears of disfigurement, abandonment and even death.
Five years later, Dr. Spiegel reviewed the data and was shocked to discover that women in the support group lived on average twice as long as the control group, and that all of the women in the group without support had since died. Dr. Spiegel wrote the book Living Beyond Limits about the extraordinary findings of this study. Other studies have shown that support groups as short as six weeks long have had similar outcomes for the people who attended regularly. Each study controlled for diet, exercise, family history and other factors that typically impact disease and found significant advantages to social connection even beyond these other factors.
Do the statistics mean that those of us who are single are doomed to get sick more often and die sooner than our married or partnered friends? Absolutely not! In fact, marriages with problems – a great deal of disagreement or stress – have been shown to produce negative effects as well. Diagnosis as a precursor to divorce or breakup is also common for two main reasons that I have observed: 1. The partner allows fear to drive them away as they can’t handle the thought of caring for a sick person or losing them. 2. The person diagnosed recognizes how unfulfilling the relationship is and leaves it with a new realization that life is too short to stay unhappily coupled.
Support can come in many forms: a close network of friends with whom you can share your fears, a support group of other people who understand what you are going through, a close family, strong ties to a religious or other community, even a social purpose to help others. You don’t have to be married to reap the benefits of connection. No matter what form it takes, getting the support you need requires a willingness to be vulnerable enough to truly open yourself up to others, and to reach out and ask for help. My book includes tips for taking stock of your community, asking for support, receiving well (very difficult for many of us), and getting clear about what you need.
Tracy Maxwell is a three-time ovarian cancer survivor, author, blogger and founder of Solo Survivors – providing healing coaching & survivorship guidance, adventures and trips for single survivors and others. Her book, Being Single, with Cancer: A Solo Survivor’s Guide to Life, Love, Health & Happiness was released in August, 2014. You can read more about her programs, services and book at www.IAMTracyMaxwell.com.