No one told me I would feel this lonely. I had an army of supporters around me, but I still felt stranded, alone, stuck at the bottom of an abyss.
I was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer at the age of 39. At the time, I was enjoying the prime of my life: I had my career as a doctor, a happy marriage, and two beautiful children — everything to live for. I didn’t look or feel unwell, either. And yet, cancer came knocking on my door and turned our lives upside down.
I underwent two major surgeries, including a stoma formation and reversal (which required the use of a stoma bag) and chemotherapy, and found the whole process completely life-changing in every respect.
What I realized early on was how isolating the whole process is. Despite all the support, texts, visits, phone calls, flowers, cards, presents, and well wishes, I felt that people couldn’t quite comprehend the enormity of each hurdle. And why should they? Unless they had trodden a similar path, it would be very difficult to have that level of empathy.
Cancer is not relatable to the other young people around you who, on the whole, enjoy reasonably good health and are busy getting on with their everyday lives. Statistically, your chance of getting cancer increases with age, so you are more likely to know someone else with cancer if you’re older (although we are now seeing younger people being diagnosed more and more).
I’m a trustee of the UK teenage cancer charity called Teens Unite. One of the things these young people cite as the most difficult to manage about their cancer is the loneliness and isolation that comes with a diagnosis. Their friends don’t understand. Their friends don’t know what to say, so many teens with cancer end up getting ghosted. Teens with cancer can no longer participate in their peers’ activities, so they are left on the periphery, feeling alone with a lack of identity.
The mind can begin running in overdrive, thinking about the grenade that cancer launched into your life and the ripple effect it’s having on everything around you.
Although I was diagnosed with cancer at 39, many of these struggles still resonated with me.
Cancer’s Effect on the Body, Mind, and Social Relationships of Young Adults
You are also potentially faced with not only the long-term effects of the disease but the side effects of cancer treatment for the rest of your life. I don’t think any of my friends rush to the toilet as many times as I do in a day.
Then there are the fertility issues and early or premature menopause that come with cancer treatments. Having to make decisions about family planning when it may be so far in the future from where you are in life — or worse, being told you will never be able to have children — is immensely difficult to handle. This can happen while you’re simultaneously trying to deal with early menopause and the symptoms it brings.
And adapting to bodily changes — a mastectomy or living with a stoma and the impact they have on new or existing sexual relationships — can also weigh heavy.
Then there is the mental fallout: the grief over your life and your body before cancer, the PTSD, the anxiety, the panic attacks, the potential for depression, the low self-worth and self-esteem that may ensue, and the body image issues you may develop. This is all on top of a diagnosis of a life-threatening condition and the uncertainty that can bring. It’s no wonder that the mental health impact is so vast, especially in those diagnosed early in their lives.