The COVID-19 pandemic has been mentally taxing for many people. The isolation, the fear of contracting the virus, and employment stress are just some of the issues we have faced. A new study finds that cancer patients have dealt with serious impacts to their mental health, as well.
Researchers from University of California San Francisco surveyed more than 600 cancer patients about their experiences early on in the pandemic, finding common struggles among them. The results were published in the journal Cancer.
Dr. Christine Miaskowski, UCSF School of Nursing professor and lead author, says, “We found that oncology patients were experiencing a deep sense of loneliness.”
Of the 606 patients surveyed in May 2020, 53% reported feeling lonely, compared with 32 to 47% of patients prior to the pandemic. About a third said they were dealing with moderately high levels of loneliness. Another 5.3% said they experienced high levels of depression. Younger people were more apt to report feeling this way, as were unmarried patients and those with more preexisting conditions.
Participants over 60 were less apt to be lonely, which researchers believe is because they adapted to whichever social opportunities were available. Income also seemed to play a role, with lower earners having a harder time than those making at least $100,000 per year. Researchers say this could be because higher earners have more opportunities to socialize.
Dr. Miaskowski notes that patients may not just be facing increased loneliness amid the ongoing pandemic, explaining, “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.”
Safely socializing is one way to alleviate these feelings, but researchers have a few more suggestions.
Dr. Miaskowski says, “Patients should be encouraged to maintain contact with family and friends, and structure their daily routines when possible, through outdoor activities for example, as well as to maintain a healthy diet and sufficient sleep. These suggestions might mitigate some of the negative effects of loneliness.”
Some limitations to the study were that 92% of participants were female, primarily dealing with breast cancer. Most also earned at least $60,000 per year and were white. As a result, there wasn’t a strong sample of men, people of color, or economically disadvantaged people.
Miaskowski says, “Given the racial/ethnic disparities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we hypothesize that the high symptom burden reported by the patients in our study will be higher in patients who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.”
Researchers say possible ways to remain socially engaged are through properly distanced meetings or video chat. They also say it’s important for doctors to talk with their patients about loneliness.