Cancer is the Loneliest Word

Lonely. That word has come up in every single one of my therapies sessions.

I was alone on the day I received my diagnosis. Alone in that cold, sterile hospital room with two chairs in it.

It was not on purpose. They had not been expecting to give me such life-changing news, so they had not asked me to bring someone with me to the appointment.

Alone is how I started my cancer journey. Little by little, I let more people in (and then my mum told half the world without consulting me, but that is a story for another day).

Every message I sent, every person I told face to face, every phone call I made, I was expanding my support network. Trying to feel less alone.

I had amazing friends. Incredible support, a bunch of people who tried taking some of the weight off. Thinking for me, cooking for me, taking my mind off everything that was happening.

Friends who came to appointments with me, drove me, waited with me, did my shopping for me, brought me food and sent me cards and crafts to keep me busy. Parents who came over from abroad for the operation. Brothers who gave up their Christmas plans to come and spend it in a tiny AirBnB in Buckinghamshire.

And so it feels wrong, it feels selfish and ungrateful to say my cancer journey was – and still is – extremely lonely.

The pandemic must have played a part in this. By keeping people away for almost a year and a half, we have obviously grown apart. And very few (if any) people saw me go through the first 18 months of my survivorship.

Survivorship is about getting over cancer. Putting it behind you, learning to live your new life as a cancer survivor. It is the part people do not see, the mental struggles, the silent battle, the will you have to move forward and the constraints that your body and your mind still put on you. Learning to live with cancer, despite cancer, beyond cancer.

At first it was about learning to breathe without hurting. Remembering how to walk, how to bend, how to do yoga. How to get back to work, how to go to appointments and not be afraid anymore. It has been about accepting the reality of cancer, understanding its effects, my present, my future. And on that path, I was alone. I was working from the confines of my bedroom, then my studio, then my living room. I was having catch-up with friends via Zoom and Messenger, family group chats and hospital appointments by phone. I learnt to be myself again without someone to hold my hand and sit right next to me, but on my own.

Just like I was on the day of my diagnosis at the hospital. Alone, with my phone and my thoughts.

Now, as I see friends and family again for the first time in months or years, I realise people do not think about me the way I think about me. The pandemic has drawn a line over cancer, it has separated two distincts moments of my existence. There has been no continuity in this cancer, because people have not witnessed me going through it.

There was the Lauriane of autumn-winter 2019, the one who had cancer, who had treatment, who was on the road to recovery. And then there is a blank, there are almost two years of no contact and no seeing each other in person. Cut-off from the world for two years, people now see me as a different Lauriane. The one who is fine. Who no longer needs support. Whom we do not associate with cancer anymore. Two very distinct beings.

It is hard to feel lonely in a room full of people, but it is how I feel now, both literally and figuratively.

Literally, because sometimes even though I am physically in the room with you, I am not, not really. I have these intense flashbacks where I am reliving random (or not so random) moments of my cancer journey. Sometimes I get away with it and no-one realises, sometimes I have to rush out so people do not notice. It happened at a handful of family dinners, it happened on a dozen video calls, it happened watching football at the pub with friends. I was in the room with them, cheering England on (I know, I kmow), and then suddenly I was not. I was on my own, scared, shocked, afraid, back at square one, in my own head, and oh so lonely.

Figuratively as well, because I was the only witness of my cancer journey. Only I have the full story.

Because my family and friends do not necessarily know the full story, either because they do not want or need to know, or because I would be incapable of summarising the last two years for anyone else, I have to accept the loneliness.

There are people who I have spoken to basically every day over the last two years. But even to them, I have not been able to tell everything. The meh days, the really bad days, the days I wanted to give up, the days I wished I was more sick so people would come flocking to me like they did when I first got my diagnosis.

No-one warns you that your support network will wobble and dwindle as your body starts to get better. It makes sense that it would. As you begin to rebuild yourself, you let go of the arms of others and try and stand on your own two feet.

I feel guilty about still not being OK, and it making people uncomfortable. I feel guilty trying to shove my cancer onto other people when they would rather forget. I feel guilty refusing to put it behind me and forget all about it, when people have moved on.

I feel guilty of feeling lonely when people have done their best to make me feel safe and supported. And even in my guilt, I feel lonely.