When first diagnosed with cancer people may unwittingly withdraw and isolate themselves from society in order to process the magnitude of their illness. I always think of a wounded animal in the wild, who when injured, withdraws to a cave or a safe place in order to heal. Time spent on having various investigations , researching available treatments and travelling back and forth to hospital for appointments consumes a lot of time leaving a person exhausted and not too interested in former social activities or hobbies. Yet with people who have had breast cancer, it has been suggested that social isolation may lead to decreased survival rate whilst various forms of social engagement improves quality of life. ( Postdiagnosis social networks and breast cancer mortality in the After Breast Cancer Pooling Project. ) I should add a disclaimer and state that I do not have access to the full article but the abstract made me pause and reflect. I also feel that social isolation is not confined to breast cancer patients but anyone who has had other cancers or chronic illnesses.
We all know how good we feel after meeting up with friends but even being aware of the potential risk may help us to take measures not to unintentionally isolate ourselves following a diagnosis of cancer, It has taken me many years to realise that I am naturally an introvert and mostly I am quite happy in my own company. I certainly won’t be the life and soul of the party when out for a night and am usually one of the quietest in our group of friends but that doesn’t stop me from going out and enjoying their company.
The friends you thought you had?…Been there, done that…. Very painful I know, but learn to let go. You cannot change them or make them do what you want. The disappointment can pervade all that you do but try to leave it at that. There is no point. I have found through experience that whenever something happens in my life it is the same few friends that turn up to support me. Cherish those friends and work on maintaining those friendships. When friends do call and invite you to an event, make sure to agree because if you keep saying no over time the telephone will stop ringing. However, be selective too on how you spend your time. You may not be interested in large crowds for awhile due to neutropenia, feeling overwhelmed or plain old fatigue. During treatment I decided what nights out I would attend and similarly if you don’t fancy a late night out perhaps arrange to go for a coffee instead. Going to the cinema is also a great way of meeting up without having to make a huge effort. If planning a night out, have a nap in the afternoon or make sure to rest so that you won’t be exhausted before you even go out!
If you were lucky enough to be able to take time off from work for treatment, stay connected with your work colleagues by popping in and out every few weeks. I mentioned this in a previous post on Back to work after cancer: part 2 Bring some goodies with you and make it a social occasion. Not only does it help make the transition back to work easier you also can catch up with the gossip! For our work Christmas party I had just finished treatment and was very tired at the time, so I settled on just going to the meal part. I managed to meet a lot of people before and after the meal and when the music started I left!
Especially in the early days lack of confidence in your body image during treatment may prevent you from socialising, or even a trip to the local shops may be fraught with anxiety. I still remember the first day stepping out with my wig in place. I kept putting my hand up and touching my hair/wig. I’m sure many of you can empathise with that feeling! Certain clothes become uncomfortable if too tight or revealing following surgery. If you are lucky enough to be near a centre that has the “Look Good, Feel Better” programme, book a place now! Over time your confidence will return again and when shopping I now know what kind of clothes to avoid and what suits.
I found attending my local cancer support centre immensely helpful especially when first diagnosed. It is a safe place for you to just be yourself. Most centres have people who are qualified and experienced in dealing with people with cancer. From my experience, a programme of events was devised to address various issues. Some examples such as reflexology during treatment to help minimise side effects, yoga for cancer patients and later a workshop on managing fatigue are only some of the events I attended. It was great place to meet people too. Without having to explain, similar people like myself were able to connect and empathise.
When I started off first in 1999 there was no internet, I relied on my hospital to provide support and afterwards family and friends. Even though they were supportive there are some things that non-cancer people do not understand. In 2013 my experience was completely different, the internet was at my fingertips and I could access all types of information in relation my disease. I was also able to follow forums and could identify with similar people which all provided a lot of support. Even at night when I used spend half the night “prowling” around the house unable to sleep, the internet was always there. Possibly not very conducive to establishing a good sleep pattern but I reckon anything goes when first diagnosed to get you through the first few months.
You may be involved already in community or religious groups and when able, get involved again. If not, when you are feeling better, make yourself join a group in your local community whether it is sports related or more gentle activities like bridge, knitting, art… whatever you fancy. It is a great way to meet people and meeting non cancer related people helps provide a distraction for awhile. This is a time when perhaps you can partake in a course you never had time for! I worked most of my life so when I retired early many of my friends continued to work. I found I was busy with my children and many of my friends had work commitments so we found it difficult to arrange meeting up. I then participated in various classes plus the local tennis club and soon developed acquaintances and got to know other people quite quickly.
Last but not least!
The article also mentioned having close relationships with your partner/spouse and having a family who provide support are also beneficial. I can certainly attest to that as I would feel lost without Hubby by my side.
So, whether you are an introvert or an extrovert by nature, some form of socialising seems to help in our recovery. It is up to ourselves to decide what form that takes.
Best wishes x