Cancer patients ‘lonely and depressed’ due to the pandemic, finds study

Lower levels of household income were associated with higher levels of loneliness.

James McKay
7 May 2021
lonely senior man wearing medical face mask looking through window of nursing house

Older cancer patients reported lower levels of loneliness.

Loneliness and social isolation have been significant problems for the general population during the pandemic, but for cancer patients these issues were particularly acute, according to a new study.

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The study, undertaken by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), is published in Cancer – a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

Researchers asked 606 oncology patients about loneliness, social isolation and related symptoms – such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive dysfunction, and pain.

Over half (53%) were found to be in the lonely group, which was higher than the range reported prior to the pandemic.

About a third had moderately high degrees of loneliness, and 5.3 percent reported high levels of depression.

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The lonely group was significantly more likely to be younger than the non-lonely group and less likely to be married or partnered. They also had a higher number of comorbidities and were more likely to report a diagnosis of depression and back pain.

Older cancer patients reported lower levels of loneliness, while patients 50 to 59 reported higher levels. The researchers believe older adults adapted their need for social contact to available opportunities.

Lower levels of household income were associated with higher levels of loneliness. The authors suggest that people at higher incomes have “more opportunities to engage in social activities and reciprocate in social relationships.”

Nearly 83 percent of the patients in the lonely group suffered from breast cancer, a third were currently in cancer treatment and a quarter had metastatic disease.

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Christine Miaskowski, a professor in the UCSF School of Nursing, said; “We found that oncology patients were experiencing a deep sense of loneliness”.

“For these patients, the burden of their symptoms is extremely high, and oncology clinicians can suggest a number of strategies to help them,” she said.

“Patients should be encouraged to maintain contact with family and friends, and structure their daily routines when possible, through outdoor activities for example, as well as to maintain a healthy diet and sufficient sleep. These suggestions might mitigate some of the negative effects of loneliness.”

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