Amidst the coloring books, fluffy blankets, and influx of letters that people provide to support you while facing cancer, it can still be incredibly isolating. While they’re incredibly kind and thoughtful, they do not possess the power to make you feel any less alone. You can be surrounded by a community of people who love and support you and still feel isolated.
If those roller coasters of feelings weren’t enough, cancer can also bestow upon you feelings of intense joy and gratitude for being alive. Positive feelings of hope and encouragement are easy, and even exciting, to share with others. They make the ordinary more beautiful and everything brighter, more meaningful. You create bucket lists, are excited about things you’re finally going to pull the trigger on, order multiple desserts because you only live once.
But it is the dark feelings that are isolating because people don’t know how to cope with the negative realities of cancer. They don’t understand how to sit in silence or anger—it’s uncomfortable and we’re not used to processing these feelings with others. They don’t know how to talk about death or face the reality that each precious moment you experience could indeed be your last. These are the isolating feelings that cancer patients experience on a daily basis. The darkness of these “cancer realities” is incredibly hard to share because of the intense pressure to be grateful all of the time; after all, you are lucky enough to still be alive.
It’s terrifying not knowing which treasured moment you experience could be your last. Is it your last glass of champagne? Are you enjoying your last Christmas? Is this the last time you’re going to hold your loved one close? Will you ever get these opportunities again? How do you look at the people who are in your corner—scared for you, too—and tell them how terrified you really are? You want to be strong because to break down in front of them and confess the truth would make all of this harder.
I have had to face cancer coming back three times, each more heartbreaking than the first. One of the hardest things for me to conquer was the emotional isolation I felt going through treatment alone.
My second and third cancer diagnoses occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did I feel emotionally isolated, but I was also physically isolated. I had to have a bone marrow transplant in April 2021, at the height of the pandemic. I didn’t have the luxury of seeing my family face-to-face during the hardest time of my life. I was alone in a small, stale, cold hospital room you could hardly unroll a yoga mat in. I had to rely on Facetime and phone calls to receive a sense of community and support that I desperately needed. It was a far cry from the comforts of home that I was used to.
I had amazing doctors and nurses who were more than empathetic and comforting because of my situation. They went above and beyond every day to check in and ensure I was okay. Still, not having the physical touch and human embrace from my family and friends during my darkest hour was difficult to live without. The pandemic made me realize the effect of not having people you love and trust around you during a vulnerable time. I missed the warm embrace from a friend, a light touch on the shoulder, a close hug. Being without those interactions can make you feel very alone and heighten your feelings of isolation. We all need physical love and support as well as emotional encouragement.
However, during these dark times I was forced to reflect on the strength and love that already existed within me. In times of anxiousness and loneliness, I had to dig deep to access that courage and hope within myself. There were a few instances when I called my family crying, not knowing what to say, and neither did they. Sometimes I called just to sit in silence on the phone. I missed them, wanted them to be there, but neither one of us knew what to say or how to act, and that was okay.
No one will truly be able to feel the things that we feel as cancer patients and relate to our deepest, darkest feelings. If we are going to get through these feelings, we must realize that everything we need is within us. But we also have to understand that we need the support of others. They are not always going to know how to say the right thing or respond in the perfect way. We need to be vulnerable enough to open up and accept what they have to give and see it for the precious gift it is; even if they do not know how to show up, they are willing to.
There is no way to know how exactly people will come alongside you, but what I’ve learned is that we need other people to help us through the dark times. Love and support from those who care about us, even in an imperfect form, will make it easier for us to cope with loneliness. We have to give them the space to show up for us imperfectly, much like we expect them to allow us to show up imperfectly. If we have the courage to be honest with each other, we can have some amazing conversations that are real, about life, death, and the space in between. We can laugh and cry, feel happy and angry simultaneously. Take comfort in transparency and feeling these things together. No feeling lasts forever—not even the bad ones. Next time you’re with someone you love and trust and feel the isolation creep in, try being honest and give them an opportunity to listen to how you really feel. You just might feel a little less alone, and they might, too.