One in four (23%) of the 325,000 newly diagnosed cancer patients in the UK – an estimated 70,000 patients each year – lack support from family and friends during their treatment and recovery, according to new research published by Macmillan Cancer Support12. And a third of those (7%) – an estimated 20,000 people each year – will receive no help whatsoever, facing cancer completely alone. The Facing the Fight Alone report – which looks at the number, profile and experiences of isolated people living with cancer – found more than half (53%) of health professionals have had patients opt not to have treatment at all due to a lack of support at home from family and friends3. Nine in ten (89%) health professionals felt that a lack of support at home leads to a poorer quality of life for patients, whilst over half felt that it can lead to poorer treatment decisions (54%) and a shorter life expectancy (56%).
The detrimental effects of isolation on the lives of people living with cancer are far-reaching. More than half (53%) of isolated patients have skipped meals or not eaten properly due to a lack of support at home. More than one in four (27%) have not been able to wash themselves properly, while three in five (60%) have been unable to do household chores.
Isolation also makes it harder for cancer patients to self-manage their medical care. Over one in ten (11%) have missed appointments to hospital or their GP, while one in six (18%) have been unable to pick up prescriptions for their medication.
Family members and friends living too far away, having other commitments or patients just having no-one to turn to are the most common reasons patients lack support. Other than a visit from a health professional, one in eight (12%) of people living with cancer surveyed haven’t had a single visit from friends or family in over six months.
For some, isolation seems to be a direct result of their cancer diagnosis. Over one in six (18%) have lost touch with family or friends because of their diagnosis, while four in five (80%) say the financial impact of cancer means they can’t afford to see their family or friends as much.
Lis Blyth, 66, Surrey, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, says:
‘Living alone, I didn’t have the energy to do anything during my radiotherapy, so I just lived on readymade meals. There were days when I went to bed having had nothing more than a glass of milk and a biscuit because I was too exhausted to cook. That was four years ago, but even now, due to the long term side effects of the treatment, I’m often still too exhausted to get on a bus and shop for food.
‘With the exception of the doctor who diagnosed me, none of the hospital staff ever asked how I was or if I could support myself at home.’
Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, says:
‘This research shows that isolation can have a truly shattering impact on people living with cancer. Patients are going hungry, missing medical appointments and even deciding to reject treatment altogether which could be putting their lives at risk — all because of a lack of support.
‘But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. As the number of people living with cancer is set to double from two to four million by 2030, isolation will become an increasing problem and we need to address this now. That’s why we are launching a new campaign to help tackle this crisis and to ensure that in future, no-one faces cancer alone.’
Macmillan Cancer Support is calling on health professionals to adopt the recommendations in the Facing the Fight Alone report.