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Cancer: An Experience of Feeling Alone in a Crowd 

For something that affects one in two men and one in three women in this country, living with a diagnosis of cancer makes many people feel very alone. This may seem striking in a country where millions of people are cancer survivors, and cancer advocacy groups, fundraising events, and celebrity survivor role models abound, but it's true!    

As a psychologist who runs the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care's Psychosocial Oncology Program, I have worked with both newly diagnosed patients and long-term survivors who have shared these ubiquitous feelings of isolation, loneliness and even shame. To understand this, one need only start with history. Cancer's legacy has been one of trepidation and fear from the days when it was referred to as the "C" word and considered the dread disease. Despite medical advances, most people know someone or of someone who has died or suffered from cancer. Many are aware of common side effects of treatment including losing one's hair, one's breast, or an organ, and the fact that cancer can recur – even after years of remission. 

Further compounding the fear is the fact that a clear cause for many cancers is not known. As human beings like to find meaning in the world, many patients come up with their own attributions for their cancers that can further feed the loneliness and shame. "I'm being punished by God" and "I did it to myself for how I lived my life" are two such examples often heard. Moreover, cultural and social perceptions can contribute to feelings of isolation, with views of cancer as a contagious affliction or signifying a death sentence not uncommon. In fact, one Jamaican woman I spoke with said she wouldn't even tell her friend, a fellow cancer survivor, about her new diagnosis of cancer because she believed she would be shunned by her community and spouse. Others from many cultures have witnessed family members and friends withdrawing, minimizing, or catastrophizing their disease, and, as a result, have chosen to keep mum about their own diagnosis. 

Cancer can truly and heartbreakingly be an experience of feeling alone in a crowd. But it doesn't have to be that way! There are many resources available, including support groups, individual counseling, peer support and telephone/online support where cancer patients can know they are not alone. In an effort to bring community and support to isolated cancer patients, we launched the Bronx Oncology Living Daily (BOLD) Buddy Program in 2011. Cancer patients can connect with trained volunteers known as BOLD Buddies, many of whom are cancer survivors themselves and eager to provide support, acceptance and understanding. Our BOLD Buddies have offered companionship during treatment and medical appointments when anxiety is often highest, and phone support when patients may feel down or alone.   

While changing deep-seated cultural views about cancer may take time, no one has to feel alone when living with cancer. I lost my mother to cancer when I was a teenager, and understand and shared the loneliness my mother felt. Cancer may be an enigma, but it is not a punishment, or anything to be ashamed of. I write this blog hoping that it will help reduce the loneliness and increase the community that exists for anyone touched by cancer. 

To learn more about the BOLD Buddy Program, contact:, 718-430-4044, or

Alyson Moadel-Robblee, PhD, is director of the Psychosocial Oncology Program, Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care and Associate Professor of Clinical Epidemiology & Population Health and of Clinical Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Posted by blogmoderator on 10/23/2013 at 1:42 PM Add Comment