How to Navigate Loneliness with Cancer

How to Navigate Loneliness with Cancer

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 9/21/21

Though more than 1.9 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the United States each year, no one will experience it in exactly the same way. There are so many factors influencing each person’s cancer journey, from the type of person they are to the type of cancer they have. Because of this, it can sometimes feel like no one truly understands what you’re going through—and that can feel really lonely.
Loneliness can take a lot of forms. Sometimes, it’s feeling frustrated when people who don’t have cancer dispense empty platitudes, like “Stay positive!” or “You should feel lucky it isn’t worse!” Other times, it’s a physical loneliness, created when treatment weakens your immunity and requires you to isolate from those you love. No matter what form it takes, loneliness can add an extra layer of difficulty to an already-difficult time. Studies have found that loneliness is linked to poorer health in people with cancer, affecting everything from immune function to pain and sleep disturbance.
While your cancer care team’s focus is on treating your cancer, they are also treating you as a whole person. That’s why it’s important to let them know if you are experiencing feelings of loneliness. There are multiple resources and strategies available to help you cope with these feelings, which in turn can help boost your overall physical and mental health.
Talk about it. If that sounds simple, that’s because it is—there is plenty of evidence to suggest that connecting with others is a key part of combatting our loneliness. Though you may feel pressured to be strong (or, at the very least, not show weakness), it’s more important to be real. Telling others about your diagnosis or what you’re experiencing as you progress through your treatment journey can open the door to connecting with your friends and family. If you just want to talk about anything but your cancer, that’s okay, too—call your sister to ask what’s going on in her life, or text your best friend about what happened at the big game last night. Make an effort to connect with other human beings at least once per day, even if only briefly.
Do the things you love. At times, you may feel too sick to take part in the social activities you used to enjoy, but that doesn't mean you have to stop altogether. Consider modifications that could work for your particular circumstances, whether it’s coaching instead of playing in your rec league basketball tournament or making a quick cameo at your friend’s cocktail party via Facetime.
Find new ways to connect. Reflect on what you’re getting—and not getting—from your current social circle. Sometimes, identifying what you’re missing can help you seek out what you need. Are you feeling like your friends and family don’t understand what you’re going through? Consider joining an in-person or virtual support group for people with cancer. Do you miss the daily workplace banter with your colleagues? Set up a text thread or Slack channel for the latest office gossip.
Hang with your community. You don’t always have to be an active participant. Some people feel comforted simply being in the presence of a community, whether at a religious service, in the stands of a sporting event, or at a yoga class. Virtual spaces are great for this, too—check to see if your church offers streaming services, or join a Reddit, Facebook, or Clubhouse group for your favorite team.
Ask for what you need. It can be really frustrating to feel like you don’t have the support you need during your treatment, whether it’s someone to drive you home from a treatment or meals for your kids when you’re too tired to cook. When friends and family offer to help, take them up on that offer, and be specific in what you need. If you’re flying solo, take advantage of the programs your cancer care center has in place—your oncology social worker can connect you with a strong support network of caring people and organizations.
Talk to a therapist. In therapy, you can have a safe space, free of judgment, to talk about anything and everything that you’re feeling. Talk to your care team to find out if your cancer care center has professionals who specialize in the emotional effects of cancer. There are also apps and websites, like Talkspace, where you can connect with a therapist virtually, or the Cancer Support Community, which offers a telephone hotline and live chat function to speak with someone who cares.
Loneliness often begets loneliness—that is, when you’re feeling physically or emotionally isolated from those around you, it can be easy to withdraw even more. Breaking the cycle can feel hard, even impossible, especially when you’re already feeling overwhelmed by cancer treatment. But reaching out and asking others for help can lighten your load and make things easier. Start by easing your way back into social connections, like sending a text message to a friend or telling your cancer care team about how you’re feeling.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at