Social Isolation After a Cancer Diagnosis: How to Be Supportive

Adolescents and young adults with cancer face a unique set of challenges, particularly when it comes to isolation. The physical, emotional, and social effects of cancer can make it difficult for them to maintain connections with their peers, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. This can be a difficult experience for any young person, but it can be especially challenging for those going through cancer treatment. And the health risks of feeling lonely and isolated are the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We owe it to each other to do what we can to reduce the impact of isolation and help avoid this added health risk. It will improve the quality of life and health outcomes for those in our community touched by cancer.

Social isolation can be felt in many ways

Here are some examples of social isolation that young adults with cancer and their support communities may experience:

  • Physical isolation: The physical isolation that can come with cancer treatment can be especially difficult for adolescents and young adults. They may be unable to attend school or work or miss out on activities they previously enjoyed. This can cause them to feel disconnected from their peers and social networks. Additionally, the physical side effects of treatment can be distressing and make it difficult for them to maintain relationships. 
  • Emotional isolation: Many adolescents and young adults with cancer may feel ashamed or embarrassed about their diagnosis and may be reluctant to share their experiences with others. They may also feel guilty for not being able to participate in activities with their friends, which can lead to feelings of isolation.
  • Social isolation: Adolescents and young adults with cancer may feel socially isolated due to their peers’ lack of understanding of their condition. They may feel left out of social activities and events and struggle to maintain friendships during treatment.


Isolation felt by the support community.

The social support network can also feel physically, emotionally, and socially isolated. They may feel helpless and unsure of how to support their loved one undergoing cancer treatment. They usually have to take time off work or school or work longer hours to care for their loved one while still tending to their other responsibilities. Supporters may feel disconnected from their own friends and colleagues, feeling that life is passing them by.

With dual responsibilities, they often feel like they have no time to recharge or care for themselves. They may feel angry, frustrated, or left out but unable to express their emotions for fear of coming off as selfish or inconsiderate. Even the healthcare team and support staff can feel isolated due to the demanding nature of their work and the emotional toll of supporting patients with cancer. If you know someone who is caring for a loved one with cancer, whether it is a friend, family member, classmate, student, or work colleague, be sure to keep these challenges in mind and offer support authentic to your relationship.

The importance of staying connected.

Isolation and its effects can differ for each individual, and it is crucial to address and support those experiences. Staying connected can make a big difference, and having a support system of friends and family can provide a sense of normalcy and help them feel less alone in their experience. Additionally, being able to talk openly and honestly about their feelings and experiences can be a powerful way to feel heard, understood, and supported.

Technology can also play a role in staying connected for adolescents and young adults with cancer. Social media and messaging apps can provide a way for them to keep in touch with friends and family, even when they are unable to physically be together. Be mindful of what is said online and recognize that the fear of missing out is a very real issue during cancer treatment. Posts about parties, social gatherings, and other events can amplify the sense that the social network is moving on and they are being left behind. Online support groups can also provide a sense of community and a place for them to connect with others who understand what they are going through.

Another important way to stay connected is by connecting with healthcare professionals and support services. Adolescents and young adults with cancer may benefit from talking with a counselor or therapist who can provide emotional support and guidance. Additionally, support groups specifically for young people with cancer can provide a sense of community and a way to connect with others who are going through similar experiences.

Find Excuses to Connect

In episode 22 of The Support Report with b-present podcast, our guest Richard Lee Thai emphasizes that loneliness is a common feeling and social health is a skill to cultivate. During his conversation with co-hosts Justin Peters and Chiara Riga, he offers several helpful strategies that focus on creating the conditions to make meaningful connections easier, including having better conversations, observing the fear ladder, using connection cards, and much more.

Ways to provide support

Supporting people who feel isolated can be challenging, but there are several ways to provide support. Remember, everyone’s experience with isolation is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. Be open and willing to adjust your approach if needed. Here are some ways to support people who feel isolated:

  • Listen actively: Try to understand the other person’s perspective. This can help to build understanding and trust.
  • Be present: Be available to talk or simply be there to hold their hand. Your presence can be a great source of comfort and support.
  • Communicate: Encourage the person to communicate their feelings and thoughts. This can help them to feel heard and understood.
  • Offer practical help: Drive them to appointments, help with grocery shopping, or prepare meals. These are all helpful examples.
  • Connect them with resources: Share online support groups, community organizations, or counseling services that can provide additional support.
  • Show your support: Gestures such as sending a note or gift or giving them a call can help to validate their feelings and provide a sense of understanding.
  • Maintain contact: Make an effort to maintain contact through regular phone calls, text messages, or visits.
  • Be patient and understanding: Remember that isolation is a process that takes time to overcome. Be patient and understanding in your support and approach.

Isolation can have a significant impact on the experience of adolescents and young adults with cancer, but by staying connected, you can make a big difference in their experience. Friends and family can provide a sense of normalcy and emotional support, technology can provide a way to stay in touch, and healthcare professionals and support services can provide guidance and community. Keep in mind that staying connected is an ongoing process, and be patient and understanding when supporting a friend with cancer.

Learn more about supporting a friend:

Losing a Sibling to Cancer — The Struggles with Moving Forward

For siblings, who often share a deep bond, a cancer diagnosis can really hit hard as life turns upside down for both of them. It’s one day at a time, powering through, delivering support and trying to help preserve normalcy in the midst of an anything-but-normal situation. The pain and worry are often well hidden as they strive to put on a brave face for each other and enjoy the present as best they can. And when a sibling doesn’t survive, the brave face often continues as the bereaved struggle to reimagine what life even means without their loved one there and the impact on their own future. 


One of many things you’ve taught me is surviving isolation. Days and nights in a hospital room for months at a time, in the moment time just passed by. We spent our time building legos, playing Mario Kart, making puzzles, playing cards, painting, walking the hallways, making fun of each other, at times fighting….honestly anything seemed fine confined within those walls as long as we had each other. Kinda wish quarantine consisted of you keeping ME company, but I’m glad you are away from this world at the moment. I would have been terrified for you.

Anyways, the past three months have been spent sick trying to find health insurance and giving into the help I need. Next month starts a new chapter in my life with a new doctor and going back to therapy, not the way I expected things to go, but I thought of you and knew you’d probably want me to stop being prideful and kind of cowardly and face my fears head-on. I haven’t even processed the loss of friends and just came straight home from funerals to work nonstop until now I’ve had time to feel my body and mind struggle. I guess this moment in time where the world is at a pause was what I needed to realize the lord is telling me to just be still…and start to take care of myself again.” — Estefania Olivera


Ruben Olivera (left) and his sister Estefania Olivera

The Healing Process

The stigma of loss among young adults can make it particularly challenging to verbalize these emotions, depriving them of part of the healing process. As part of the AYA cancer support community, let’s all remember how important it is to make room for young adults to grieve, process, and talk about their loss, concerns, and struggles. Comfort and healing are facilitated by just listening. And most importantly, remember to keep their sibling’s memory alive in conversations that celebrate how they lived, the things they taught us and the light they brought into our lives. It should never feel like we have moved on, but instead, it should feel like we are moving forward…together. 

How to Support Someone in Isolation | Coronavirus Crisis

With the coronavirus (COVID-19) leading to the cancellation of most community, school, and sporting events, our most vulnerable populations are self-isolating, and feelings of loneliness can become magnified. There is so much uncertainty in the world during times of crisis. However, one thing is certain…we’re all in this together, and we need each other’s support to get through tough times. So how can we support someone in isolation? Let’s commit to being there for them. People might be too humble or shy to ask for support or companionship, even if they desire it. Rather than wait for our loved ones to reach out to us, let’s be proactive. 

We may not be able to sit in the same room with a loved one in isolation, but that shouldn’t prevent us from connecting and providing support. Know the guidelines, but this is an opportunity to b-creative with your interactions. And remember there are lots of ways to virtually b-there!

support someone in insolation via text

To support someone in isolation or someone that has visitor restrictions:

  • Reach out via text, phone call, or video chat to check-in. Let them know you are thinking of them and ask how you can support them
  • Avoid saying, “let me know if you need anything,” and instead offer some actionable options like…
    • Feeding/caring for a pet, or taking them for a walk
    • Making or picking up and delivering a meal (you may need to drop it off at the front door)
    • Running an errand
    • Picking up some needed items
    • Helping with time-critical activities (ex: bills or taxes)
    • Offering to babysit a child off from school.


If you are supporting someone that is isolated but still up for activities:

  • Watch a show or movie together with Netflix Party. It synchronizes video playback and adds group chat to your favorite Netflix shows.
  • Schedule a time to play an online game together (ex: Words with Friends, Trivia Crack, etc.)
  • Hop on a video chat like FaceTime or Zoom and challenge them to a game of Hangman, Tic Tac Toe, or Pictionary — get creative!
  • Share a favorite old photo and play the game “What/where/when/who.” 
  • Send a favorite picture or meme that will make them smile. Have fun and put your own captions on a funny image.
  • Visit a virtual museum together
  • Learn more about your friend and strengthen your bond with a fun, informal interview. Here’s a list of silly and serious questions to ask.


If you are supporting someone that is isolated and feeling stressed or anxious:

  • Offer a shoulder to cry on (perhaps only figuratively)
  • Check-in with them frequently and be a good listener. Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen as they voice their concerns
  • If they talk about stressors that you can help with, offer to help
  • Not everything can be fixed, so don’t feel like you need to be a fixer. Just assure them that you will be there for moral support through it all

Have another helpful support tip to add to the list? Contact us to let us know!

Loneliness Poses the Same Health Risk as Smoking 15 Cigarettes a Day

Yes, you read that headline correctly. Loneliness poses the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! When I read that statistic, I couldn’t believe it. Loneliness impacts our health and our mortality. An even more disheartening fact is, according to a recent study, loneliness is on the rise, with nearly 2/3 of Americans feeling lonely. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be impacted.

But loneliness is not the same as being alone on a Saturday night. You can experience loneliness even when you are surrounded by people.
I heard a description of loneliness that makes the problem very clear, especially when it comes to thinking about how we can help. It was…

“Loneliness is caused by a mismatch between the quality and quantity of connections we want and those we receive.”


What can we do to help solve this problem?

Be present. Let’s make a promise to each other right now that loneliness won’t be one of the health risks we ever have to worry about.

How do we fulfill that promise?

Commit to being there for those who need us without hesitation. This is particularly important for our loved ones with cancer because their immune system is already beat down by the cancer treatments. Let’s not let loneliness be yet another challenge they must face and overcome, especially knowing that loneliness has an impact on their mortality.


Don’t let them suffer

Would you willingly hand your loved one 15 cigarettes and watch as they smoked every last one? Absolutely not. There is no way we would allow our loved ones to suffer from loneliness if we knew it was equally as harmful to their health as smoking those cigarettes. Yet we somehow let ourselves get in our own way when it comes to being present for those that need us.

So let’s stop with the excuses and make loneliness go up in smoke. Commit to reaching out and checking in. The best connections involve putting the devices down and dedicating our eyes, ears, and heart to the person next to us.

Never underestimate the power of presence…you just might save a life!