During the pandemic, an increasing number of us have experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings can have a negative effect on our mental health, as statistics from ONS show that one in five (21%) adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021. A figure which is more than double that observed before the pandemic began last year (10%).

A new study published online in CANCER, has revealed that cancer patients have experienced these feelings disproportionately, with more than half (53%) of survey respondents reporting feelings of loneliness in recent months.

This figure has significantly increased since last year, with studies reporting that just 32-to-47-percent of cancer patients were lonely before Covid hit.

Patients in the lonely group reported more severe symptoms of anxiety and depression 

Of the 606 respondents with a cancer diagnosis, patients in the lonely group reported higher levels of social isolation, as well as more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive dysfunction, and pain. They were also less likely to be married or partnered, more likely to live alone, and more likely to have a lower annual household income.

The researchers note that while studies executed pre and during the Covid-19 pandemic found links between loneliness and symptoms of anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive dysfunction, and pain, this study is the first to evaluate all of these symptoms in the same group of patients.

Importantly, the study included individuals who were primarily white, well-educated, and had a high annual household income. Lead author Christine Miaskowski of the University of California, said: “Given the racial/ethnic disparities associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, we hypothesise that the high symptom burden reported by the patients in our study will be higher in patients who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

Patients may warrant referrals to psychological services 

As a result of these findings, the researchers are urging clinicians to ask patients about feelings of loneliness and assess for multiple co-occurring symptoms. They stress that patients and survivors should not hesitate to report such symptoms to their primary care providers or oncologists, as patients may warrant referrals to psychological services to assist with symptom management.

Dr. Miaskowski said: “Patients with cancer, as well as survivors, need to realise that feelings of loneliness and social isolation are very common during the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to this sense of loneliness, they may be having feelings of anxiety, sadness, and fatigue, as well as problems sleeping and high rates of unrelieved pain—all at the same time.

“To decrease these feelings, patients and survivors can develop a schedule of social interactions; develop a structure to their daily activities; engage in regular exercise particularly in the outdoors; use stress reduction exercises; and eat a healthy diet.”