Social Science Series #10: Cancer and social life

How does cancer affect patients’ social lives?

Cancer and its treatment-related consequences can potentially affect patients’ social lives by decreasing their energy and motivation to maintain social activities. Patients are not only affected by physical changes, but also by emotional ones that may emerge, such as anxiety, depression and fear. These emotions can affect their disposition to socialize, as they may fear judgment or have difficulties communicating. Also, since cancer treatment can produce loss of hair, weight changes or scars, patients’ self-esteem may be affected, which can therefore cause complications in their interactions with others. However, cancer can affect people differently. As such, some of them might have less difficulty maintaining a social life after being diagnosed. In every case, it is important for patients to receive support from family, friends, and health professionals to ensure their well-being.

Source: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

How does social life benefit cancer patients?

Social life is beneficial for cancer patients in various aspects, such as in providing emotional support. Interactions with friends, families, co-workers, and other patients can alleviate stress and anxiety related to cancer and its treatment. By participating in social activities, patients can maintain their current social connections and create new ones, which consequently helps in avoiding a feeling of isolation. One benefit of enhancing a patients’ social life is the opportunity for them to interact with others also battling cancer, such as in support groups. This allows them to share experiences, advice, and guidance regarding their journey after diagnosis. Cancer support groups can help their sense of belonging and increase the availability of strategies to improve their socialization. Participation in social activities allows patients to maintain a sense of normality and highlight their identity beyond their disease.

A study conducted by researchers from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), in collaboration with the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom Network Science, examined the relationship between social interaction and the survival rate of patients undergoing chemotherapy. The research showed that patients were more likely to achieve a 5-year survival rate when interacting with other patients who had also survived for 5 or more years during their treatment; while their risk of mortality within 5 years was reduced to 68%. On the other hand, when patients were isolated, it was observed that they would have a 69.5% risk of dying within 5 years of chemotherapy. Therefore, what this signifies is that social interaction with peers who survived cancer for at least 5 years after completing their treatment led to an increase in survival rates. Scientists postulate that this increase was related to the fact that socializing can relieve the levels of stress, which plays a key role in their well-being.

Social preferences and needs can vary among patients. Some patients may prefer quiet and private social activities, while others may prefer more active and outgoing activities. It is important to respect their individual preferences and adapt possible social activities to their needs.

Source: OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, Medical News Today (2017)

How can patients improve their social life?

Some advice on how patients can improve their social life may include:

  • Good communication: patients should share their needs with friends, family, and health professionals in order to determine their preferences and collectively find proper support systems. It is important that they express how they are affected by the behavior of those around them. Therefore, it is vital that they prioritize their energy, being in full control of their availability to socialize and communicate without judgment. Cancer patients should remember that they are in control of the information they want to disclose about their health; they can decide when and what to disclose to friends and family members, and they do not need to pressure themselves into sharing information if they are not ready.
  • Finding support groups: support groups allow patients to connect with other individuals experiencing similar situations and give them a safe space to share their worries, advice and information. The emotional support coming from first-hand experiences can help them build strong relationships.
  • Using technology: this is a great tool to remain connected and maintain contact with loved ones without affecting energy levels too much.
  • Seeking professional advice: patients can seek advice from mental health professionals on how to manage their social life. Counseling can provide personalized attention and encouragement to those affected by cancer.


Source: Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

How can friends and family help patients socialize?

Some advice on how to help improve the social lives of cancer patients may include:

  • Active listening: it is important for friends and family members to show their understanding of patients’ needs and avoid pushing their boundaries. Active listening is important to safely understand emotions. The patient should feel comfortable when being negative, positive, or silent during conversations. Others’ comments and reactions should not be judgmental. Friends and family should also respect how much information the patient wants to share and avoid asking intrusive questions.
  • Adapt to their needs: understanding patients’ preferences is important; therefore, adapting social activities according to their needs are vital to safeguard their energy, self-esteem and motivation. For example, instead of inviting them to an outside activity, socializing at home can be a good idea.
  • Reassurance: patients need to know that they have people that support them. Family and friends should visit and stay in contact regularly to inquire about the patient’s health status, schedule visits, and explore different ways to interact.
  • Helping with errands: patients might have challenges in completing certain tasks, such as buying groceries, babysitting, cleaning, etc. By offering support in these activities, patients will not force themselves beyond their physical and emotional circumstances.


Source: American Cancer Society, 2021

How can patients explore dating and intimacy during and after cancer treatment?

For couples, partners play a key part in accompanying cancer patients through their process. This can be a test experience for the relationship, and couples might encounter challenges while also learning how to face them together. In some cases, cancer treatment strengthens a relationship, while in other cases it leads to ending the relationship. Daily routines, as well as roles, might change from the appointments and treatment the patient has, making partners more involved in day-to-day activities. Furthermore, changes in responsibilities can potentially lead to feelings of guilt or being overwhelmed on both ends. For these reasons, examining the effects that cancer has on relationships is important to avoid turning a relationship into a caregiver/patient situation rather than into a partnership. Being aware of the potential problems that may face the relationship can aid in the understanding of how to obtain the proper support.

When dating, determining when and how much information the cancer patient wants to disclose to a date is important. Some people might prefer to mention their present or past experience with cancer upfront; others might prefer to wait until they know someone for a while. Everyone reacts differently, and it would be difficult to predict any responses. Being honest and giving others a realistic idea of how the diagnosis and treatment can affect their relationship is important. Sharing information and feelings about it can help in establishing trust and honesty. However, patients should make sure that they feel comfortable enough to tell the other person. It is also important to be prepared for questions. Cancer patients who are already in relationships can provide advice on how to prepare for dating, what to expect and what questions/comments might emerge.

Cancer can also influence patients’ sex lives due to the side effects of treatment, affecting libido and self-esteem, causing physical discomfort during sex, and affecting fertility, among other issues. This can cause a loss of confidence levels and communication which can decrease intimacy. Although it is possible to keep worries to oneself, silence can lead to misunderstandings and isolation. The best approach is to have open conversations regarding what the patient is going through and work things out together. It is important to remember that sex is not the only form of intimacy between couples; it can also be expressed by demonstrating mutual care, non-sexual physical affection, etc.

Advice on how to manage cancer treatment and dating/intimacy:

  • Expressing oneself: discussing concerns regarding relationships and intimacy can improve confidence and provide reassurance. Good communication will allow the couple to explore their concerns together and achieve new ways to express their feelings and concerns. However, when communication feels challenging, it’s okay to express needing time so loved ones can give each other enough space.
  • Talking with a healthcare team: doctors can suggest ways to counteract the collateral damage of cancer treatment regarding dating and sex life with medications and counseling. By addressing any possible challenges early on, patients can be prepared for this during and after treatment.
  • Support groups: connecting with people who have similar experiences can be helpful for sharing and learning about dating life with cancer. This can improve confidence and give patients a better sense of support.


Source: Cancer Network Australia, 2021

How can patients find a balance between cancer and work life?

Cancer treatment can significantly affect time and concentration on work-related matters, as it demands a lot of physical and emotional energy. However, it can also provide a sense of normalcy and routine to patients. There are many reasons why patients can decide to continue their work life during treatment, among them being economic reasons, as well as keeping a sense of purpose. Depending upon a patient’s needs, creating a balance between recovery and work life can happen differently. Some advice on how to manage work while enduring cancer treatment includes:

  • Discussing the situation with doctors: a healthcare team can give patients a broader idea of what they can expect and change about their work life. Based on their physical condition and the side effects they experience, doctors may recommend how to proceed with work and prepare them, and how to avoid/minimize potential issues.
  • Being open to changes: managing their health and work might require patients to adjust their work environment. They might consider taking time off work to focus solely on treatment and resting. Listening to what their body needs is vital to ensure their well-being. Patients may consider requesting not to do certain tasks such as those that are physically demanding or may consider working from home. Furthermore, it is important to be aware of their workplace’s healthcare support options in order to know how to benefit from them.
  • Avoiding pressure: patients must understand that they might not be able to perform the same way as they did previously. Their energy levels and focus on work can decrease and it is completely normal.
  • Telling co-workers about their situation: sharing their situation with trusted colleagues can help patients feel more comfortable at work.


Source: Macmillan Cancer Support, 2021

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