‘Staying silent on cancer can be damaging’

Cancer patients struggling under the burden of loneliness are susceptible to depression because they find it difficult to open up about their experiences with loved ones, a leading healthcare expert says.

Cancer patient Doreen Watt echoes those sentiments and admits that, at first, she felt no one could understand the emotional anguish she was going through.

Dr Lincoln Sargeant, the director of public health for North Yorkshire, said it is important for cancer patients to have channels through which they feel they can talk frankly about what their experiences.

“People living with cancer and other major life-threatening illnesses may feel that they cannot fully share their experience with family and friends,” Dr Sargeant said. “This may be from a desire to protect their loved ones but can contribute to loneliness in that open conversations about a major issue cannot take place. It may also be that people dealing with a significant illness like cancer find it difficult to relate to those who do not share a similar experience. This can lead to loneliness and in some can progress to depressive symptoms.

“Those who treat cancer patients and people living with serious illness should be aware of the emotional and mental health needs of the patients and their carers. They should facilitate patients in having conversations with their loved ones so they can share their experiences and not have to face a major life event on their own. Clinicians should be on the lookout for symptoms of loneliness and depression in their patients and carers and help them to access the necessary support.”

Doreen Watt, 67, is divorced and lives alone, and says she has now learnt to open up when attending support sessions with fellow cancer patients at Bradford and Airedale Cancer Support Centre.

“Until that word ‘cancer’ is said to you, you can’t explain to other people how it feels. I have family and friends who have supported me but the people at the Centre can relate to what you have been through

“I couldn’t speak about it at first but I’ve come a long way since and I couldn’t have done it without their support.”

Feeling unable to talk about cancer can fuel loneliness and the health impacts of the latter alone are stark. Researchers compare living with loneliness to the affects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Jack Neill-Hall, campaigns manager at the Campaign to End Loneliness, said: “When we feel lonely we can sometimes forget to look after ourselves properly. In fact, researchers have shown that feeling lonely can lead us to not exercising enough, eating a poor diet and having an increased likelihood of smoking and drinking too much. Unfortunately, these very behaviours can often contribute to us becoming ill, or aggravate other conditions outside of our control.

“It is vital that we understand the link between loneliness and ill health so that we can break the negative cycle of loneliness exacerbating ill-health and vice versa. By ensuring that our public health and care services are aware of the risks of loneliness, we can do more for people who may be suffering from cancer, disability, or duel sensory loss and make sure they well looked after, but also better able look after themselves.”

Jacoba Oldham, Yorkshire area manager for the Independent Age charity, said the “incredibly sad” findings published by Macmillan Cancer Support showing the scale of loneliness among cancer patients is a further warning of just how important it is for us all – local authorities, charities, friends, family and neighbours – to act together to help to reduce loneliness.

For cancer support, call Macmillan on 0808 808 00 00.
For details on how to back the Post’s loneliness campaign, visit

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