For almost 18 wonderful years, I’ve had the privilege of building a close relationship with my daughter. Whether in person, or by phone or text, we like to talk about everything and anything. Today she texted me to say how much she missed her friend who just transferred to another school. She was “lonely” and “bored” without her. My response: “Think relaxing thoughts. Be your own best friend. You have to be alone sometimes.”
Her response: “Yeah, I actually tell myself that a lot cuz of eighth grade when I didn’t have friends and that’s what you told me.”
My response: “What did I say?”
Her response: “That I have to be okay with being by myself sometimes.”
Unlike solitude, which we choose, loneliness is a force we have to work with or risk allowing it to swallow us up. I guess I made a point to teach my daughter about being okay with it once in a while because of experiences in my life.
I grew up in a small Cape Cod house with two parents and eight brothers and sisters. Despite the obvious noise and activity, I often felt alone, especially during my teenage years. I was the oldest, a girl (followed in birth order by four brothers) and my youngest sibling was 14 years younger than me. I often existed in a parallel universe very different from the one inhabited by my siblings.
In my adult life, the most lonely experiences accompanied birth and cancer. The day my daughter was born, I was ill all day and ended up in the hospital severely dehydrated. Dehydration led to labor and she was born at 11:46 p.m. Although I was probably food poisoned, my doctor couldn’t rule out infection. To protect my newborn, I wasn’t allowed to touch or hold her. Instead, I spent the night in a room, alone, without my new baby or my husband (who I encouraged to go home to rest.) To this day, almost 18 years later, I remember laying there and thinking, “This certainly didn’t go as planned.” I expected to meet my daughter and have her with me. Instead, my new family was separated and I was alone.
The second experience came after my mastectomy for breast cancer. After six and a half months of diagnostic tests, doctors visits, and finally my surgery, I was bowled over by the emotional impact of it all. My family, so very relieved that I was alive, was happy to move on and put the whole cancer thing behind them. I found myself again living in a parallel universe very much apart from my family. It was a horribly lonely place to be.
The cancer-induced loneliness lasted an entire summer. My wonderful oncology therapist helped me tremendously by letting me express my sadness and building anger. With her help, I was eventually able to make my family understand that I needed them to be where I was – that cancer was not yet over for me.
Life teaches us that we have to handle being by ourselves sometimes. It’s an important lesson to learn, but cancer-induced loneliness is bigger than that and not something we should accept as another loss of cancer. If you are finding yourself still struggling after cancer treatment, while others around you are only too happy to put your cancer behind them, get support anywhere you can. Seek out others who understand how you feel and with whom you can share your feelings. My therapist helped me carry the overwhelming weight of my loneliness that summer. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had been forced to carry it alone.
Have you or are you still dealing with the loneliness of life after cancer? What has helped you deal with it?
Image courtesy of Artúr Herczeg