MONDAY, May 10, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Fighting cancer can be a lonely battle, and new research shows that the coronavirus pandemic has made the experience even more isolating.
Studies conducted before the pandemic found that 32% to 47% of cancer patients were lonely, but in late May of 2020 roughly 53% of 606 cancer patients reported loneliness.
Those who were lonely had higher rates of social isolation and more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbance, thinking problems and pain, the survey found.
They were also less likely to be married or partnered, more likely to live alone, and more likely to have a lower annual household income, according to the study published online recently in the journal Cancer.
Loneliness and social isolation can harm health and longevity, the study authors noted.
"Patients with cancer, as well as survivors, need to realize that feelings of loneliness and social isolation are very common during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to this sense of loneliness, they may be having feelings of anxiety, sadness and fatigue, as well as problems sleeping and high rates of unrelieved pain — all at the same time," said study author Christine Miaskowski, from the University of California, San Francisco.
The researchers noted that the survey participants were primarily white, well-educated, and had a high annual household income. That means loneliness could be even a bigger burden for minority or less well-off cancer patients, they said.
There are steps that can help, however.
Health care providers should ask cancer patients about feelings of loneliness and assess them for related symptoms, and patients and survivors should report such symptoms to their health care providers, the researchers advised.
That could lead to "referrals to psychological services to assist with symptom management," Miaskowski said in a journal news release. "In addition, to decrease these feelings, patients and survivors can develop a schedule of social interactions; develop a structure to their daily activities; engage in regular exercise, particularly in the outdoors; use stress reduction exercises; and eat a healthy diet."
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has tips for avoiding loneliness.
SOURCE: Cancer, news release, May 5, 2021