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At the very beginning of his book, Love & Survival, Ornish (1998) stated, "Our survival depends on the healing power of love, intimacy, and relationships. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. As individuals. As communities. As a country. As a culture. Perhaps even as a species" (p. 1). Weil (1997) asserted that human beings are highly social, communal animals who are meant to live in families, tribes, and communities, and when we lack those connections, we suffer.
However, our Western industrialized society glorifies individualism and independence and fosters a spirit of every man to himself. Weil (1997) maintained that many people pride themselves on their independence and seem to habitually distance themselves from others. Some may indulge in isolation as a defense strategy, possibly as a consequence of emotional pain; others may never have learned how to meaningfully connect to anyone beyond themselves. Kohut (1977) asserted that establishing and maintaining relatedness to others is a pervasive human concern, believing that "through interpersonal interactions people survive, develop and grow" (Hagerty, Williams, Coyne, & Early, 1996, p. 235).
Sleek (1998) suggested that technology such as the Internet was geared to help us establish relationships. But the very same technology that has allowed people to strengthen their contact with distant family members and friends and to develop friendships with people around the world is actually replacing necessary day-to-day human interactions. As easy as it may be to connect via the Internet with people who are thousands of miles away, "a computer monitor can't give you a hug or laugh at your jokes" (Sleek, 1998, p. 1). In fact, Kraut et al. (1998) reported that increased use of the Internet leads to shrinking social support and happiness and results in depression and increased loneliness. Ornish (1998) echoed those findings by observing that "at their best, e-mail and chat rooms can be another way of staying in touch and keeping up with loved ones who may be thousands of miles away in real space but instantly available in cyberspace. All too often, however, technology provides a way of numbing loneliness without experiencing real intimacy" (pp. 100-101).
Weil (1997) unequivocally stated his concern that the widespread isolation in our Western society is unhealthy physically, emotionally, and spiritually. "I do know for sure that connectedness is necessary to well-being. You can eat as much salmon and broccoli as you can, take antioxidants for the rest of your life, breathe terrifically, and walk all over the earth, but if you are disconnected [from others], you will not achieve optimum health" (p. 153). This connectedness to others is so important that its nature affects the bio-psycho-social process that influences behavior and promotes or impairs health.
Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, and interpersonal hostility (Hansson, Jones, Carpenter, & Remondet, 1986) and to an increased vulnerability to health problems (Jones, Rose, & Russell, 1990). Psychosomatic theories of cancer speculate that there is an association between a history of tragic personal loss and the development of cancer (see also Hartog, 1980).
Current research suggests that psychological variables--including loneliness--have been associated with changes in immune functioning and may weaken the body's capacity to fight disease (Kennedy, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988). The immune system protects the body from illness through the recognition and destruction of antigens, disease-causing substances like bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. Once an antigen enters the body, lymphocytes (T cells or B cells) multiply in order to combat the antigen. T cells directly attack and destroy antigens, whereas B cells create immunoglobulins that act as antibodies that combine with and neutralize harmful antigens (Barlow & Durand, 1995).
Loneliness and Cancer
Cancer also produces physical changes that may be aversive to others (Wortman & Dunkel-Schetter, 1979). For example, during treatment, patients may experience bleeding tendencies, hair loss, mouth sores, and unattractive skin reactions (Steams, Lauria, Hermann, & Fogelberg, 1993). Having cancer may evoke fears in others about contracting the disease from the patient (Cohen, 1985; Mages & Mendelson, 1979). Furthermore, in order to avoid further distress, patients may avoid open communication about the disease, especially with family members and medical personnel, which may add to the lack of social interaction (Cohen, 1985; Holland, 1977; Schwartz, 1977; Silberfarb & Greet, 1982).
Singer (1983) asserted that because it is part of human nature to avoid pain, cancer patients and their families often experience tremendous difficulty relating to each other and working with the problem in a constructive way. Finally, as the cancer progresses, opportunities for social activities decrease due to disabilities caused by the disease (Bloom & Spiegel, 1984). Friedman et al. (1989) observed that approximately 50% of their 60 patients felt their loneliness was associated with illness or illness-related situations.
- Rokach, A. Terminal Illness and Coping with Loneliness. The Journal of Psychology. May 2000. Vol. 134 Issue 3.
When Someone You Love Has Advanced Cancer
- National Cancer Institute. (2014). When Someone You Love Has Advanced Cancer. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Online Continuing Education QUESTION 22
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