You Finished Treatment, Now What? *Part 9: The Role of Social Connection and Community
A Ten Part Series for Cancer Survivors/Thrivers from Your Licensed Naturopathic Doctor
Some people are born with the urge to be social, connecting easily with peers and strangers alike. They join groups, participate enthusiastically, have an easy smile that draws people to them. Others are less inclined that way and can be quite happy on their own. Increasingly, medical research points to the positive role that socializing and having a web of community support plays in both the prevention of illness and in quality of life.
This is especially true for cancer survivors. Making this part of the prescription for those who have finished treatment or who are living with cancer is a priority. But how do we encourage being social? How do you get out in to the world again after being sick? How do you make plans when you’re not 100% confident you will have the energy? How do you squeeze in socializing between follow-up appointments and all the other things you have to do to regain health or manage illness? If you’re in mid or later life and have not found social settings easy how can you shift more toward people instead of away?
I think about this often in my career as I see many patients who are not connected much with other people and seem worse off due to social isolation. And the cancer care community knows this too. That’s why so many hospitals and clinics or nonprofit organizations offer support groups and other activities for patients in treatment and for survivors, not to mention for care-givers. From rowing for cancer survivors, to art classes or chi gong, bringing together survivors who share a common bond whether they like it or not, has proven to enhance quality of life. These groups or activities have been life-savers and in many cases, friendships and bonds are formed helping create a safety net for individuals and families.
Some of my cancer patients and survivors are not at all interested in connecting with others in the same boat. They want to go as far away as possible from the topic. And that’s fine, too. I spend time with such a patient exploring what kinds of things they enjoy, what did they used to do for pleasure or social activity? I might get online during a patient appointment to help (an especially a less computer-oriented person,) explore local options, from art classes, to senior center activities, from birdwatching to quilting, from French cooking to community theater. It can be a little like cajoling a middle schooler to try a school club: I recommend planning to go two or three times to give a new experience a chance. If after that, you don’t like it you don’t have to go back. Being open to new or different experiences is hard for some people.
Then there’s the role of volunteerism which gets high marks for both its social element but also shifting the tables a bit, from being someone who has had to receive care and attention to being the person who offers it. Most communities keep a list of volunteer opportunities in the local paper or online. Larger cities have organizations that will help you find a relevant volunteer opportunity based on your interests, experience, capacity and availability. Studies show that volunteering impacts health outcomes. For many volunteer activities just working side by side, say sorting food at a local Food Bank, or volunteering at a Red Cross Blood Drive, can be a low commitment thing to try.
Taking classes is another way to be with others. It can be difficult to start a conversation for some people, so having something you’re doing together, like being in a learning environment or participating in a discussion at a library book group say, gives you some social currency and shared experiences to talk about. Community colleges, community centers, museums, nature centers and more offer lifelong learning classes. Local gyms and YMCAs offer a menu of classes for all interests and skill levels and we know that exercise has its own separate and important role to play for survivors. Maybe traveling in a group to a place you’ve always wanted to visit, another way to have some organized and intentional time with others.
There are also organizations that cater to survivors that offer classes, travel opportunities, retreats and other activities. These kinds of experiences can also help with the social connection, whether a mindfulness meditation or yoga retreat, art or music camp, or whatever special interest you might have. The concept of a bucket list of things you want to do, try, learn or experience might be heightened after cancer treatment of for those living with cancer; I like to talk about that with my patients and encourage making plans.
It makes sense and studies reflect that the development of listserves, chatrooms and social media pages has offered many people a virtual way of connecting which has many positive attributes and has been a lifeline, especially those who are less mobile or spending long days at home alone. Of course, as for all people, too much time in front of the computer is not ideal, for the eyes, the brain, the body and the spirit.
For cancer survivors in my practice, I want explore this piece of their life and to help brainstorm possible ways to plump up the social time and the community building efforts in ways that feel relevant and doable. I am also a big advocate for encouraging patients to have some fun! Going through cancer treatment is a bummer and is so new and different and though not anything anyone signs up for voluntarily, I often say, Welcome to the Club — and now that you’re done with treatment or living with cancer, you get a free pass. You can try something new, you can re-invent yourself, you can learn something you always wanted to learn. Learning or doing something new, visiting a new place with others, all have a way of invigorating your mind and your spirit, might just make a new friend and as it turns out, enhances health and has a positive impact on outcomes, too.
Additional pieces in this series:
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part One: Exercise #naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Two: Nutrition and Eating#naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Three: Intermittent Fasting#naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Four: The Head Game#naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Five: Botanical Medicine #naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Six: Off Label Use of Pharmaceuticals #naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Seven: Nutritional Supplements#naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What?*Part Eight: Acupuncture & Homeopathy #naturopathic #naturopathicmedicine #dramyrothenberg
· *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Ten: How to Talk so Your Oncologist Listens and Listen so Your Oncologist Talks(with Apologies to Farber & Mazlich**)