Lonely and living with cancer

(Photo: Luisa Migon)

It has been ascertained that 22 per cent of people living with cancer in the UK (estimated at 400,000 people) also encounter loneliness on a regular basis as a result of their condition.

The people living with cancer who are most likely to feel lonely are those where the disease is advanced, spread or relapsed; are living alone; and/or have made a change to their working life.

The ongoing effect is that many people in this situation find themselves to be housebound and unable to feed themselves properly, according to research undertaken for Macmillan Cancer Support.

In the survey conducted by Ipsos MORI, which compared the experiences of cancer patients who felt lonely since their diagnosis (or more lonely than they did before) and those who do not feel lonely, the lonely cancer patients were:
• Three times more likely to drink alcohol than they usually do (22% vs 7%)
• Almost five times more likely not to have left the house for days (66% vs 14%)
• Almost three times more likely to have problems sleeping (76% vs 27%)

It is the experience for many people in this situation that their diet worsens, at a time when they need to build up their strength to combat the disease. Lonely cancer patients are five times more likely to skip meals (38% vs 7%) and nearly eight times more likely to be living on a poor diet (45% vs 6%).

While the reasons for not eating properly can include lack of appetite and being too weak to cook, 13 per cent of the lonely cancer patients who have missed meals state it is because they have insufficient finances to buy enough food.

Ciarán Devane, the Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, commented: "Loneliness is blighting the lives of hundreds of thousands of cancer patients in the UK. It's hard enough for people being hit with the devastating news that they have cancer, without having to suffer the additional effects that being lonely brings. It's heartbreaking to think of people struggling to eat or leave the house because they have been abandoned and left to deal with cancer alone."

Mr Devane continued: "This is a growing problem which is only set to get worse as the number of people diagnosed with cancer doubles from two to four million in the next 20 years."

It is indeed heartbreaking and there is no doubt that some of these people will be living without even the comfort of a faith in the God who is with us in our darkest moments.

The Bible promises: "Do not be afraid or terrified…for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31: 6)

However, people often need the physical touch and company that only other people can give. God has given us gifts according to the grace that is given to us so that we can reach out to others who are hurting and are lonely.

In Romans 12:8, there are two gifts in particular: encouragement and mercy.

The word 'encouraging' means literally to 'walk alongside' - the description of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16 is derived from the same word. We can demonstrate how God acts toward us by sharing that same attitude towards others – a necessary approach for those who are feeling alone and need to know that someone is there alongside them.

The word 'mercy' is more than sympathy, for it drives the Christian to action. When a person living with cancer feels alone, they need more than sympathy; they need someone to talk with them and who is prepared to help them in practical matters as they struggle with life.

Prior to telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (love in action), Jesus exhorts us to 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. So many of us are unaware that in our neighbourhoods are those living with cancer and, in their suffering, feeling desperately lonely.

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