On Their Own

Going it alone in the fight against cancer.

In the midst of chemotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Jim Burnham would sometimes crave a cup of tea. A retired salesman who’s now 66, Burnham is single and lives alone in Seattle. So he had only one option: “You get up and you make your tea, or you don’t have the tea.”

Sure, he has friends. Some act as if his lymphoma were contagious. Besides, he says, “cancer is such an isolating circumstance—people can walk you up to the door, but you’re the one who’s going in.”

Solo fliers do find ways to cope and thrive, calling on their inner strength as well as local and national resources.

In the days after diagnosis, the independent cancer patient may need someone to cut through red tape and sort through information—a friend, volunteer, or professional. Social worker Kathy Gurland, MSW, LCSW, who just started a New York business as a navigation consultant for cancer patients, got a call from a single client in a panic. An entrepreneur in her early 40s, the caller wanted a second visit with her surgeon to discuss her upcoming surgery for ovarian cancer. The office scheduler said sure, how about the day before the operation? Gurland encouraged her client to ask the office social worker to intercede. The client quickly got a slot. Gurland came along, taking notes and prompting the woman to ask her questions—taking the role a spouse or parent might play.

Decisions are difficult for any cancer patient, perhaps more so for the independent operator. “A single person has to trust themselves a whole lot more,” says Cathleen Carr, 52, of Tacoma, Washington. An experienced researcher from her work as a consultant, Carr dived into the web to learn more about her breast cancer, which hit in 1995 and returned in 2004.

Carr felt she waited too long before deciding to have a mastectomy after the recurrence. “Weighing information can be a way to stall. You have to have a sense of intuition.” Setting a deadline, with the input of doctors, is a helpful strategy.

When it comes to practical matters, single cancer patients may underestimate what they need. “They have no idea how cancer is going to, excuse the expression, kick their butt,” says Shepherd. “The exhaustion, the low blood cell counts, all of these things are so debilitating.” It’s incumbent on the medical team “to keep checking and keep offering,” she says. Over time, there could be a change of heart in a patient who initially fears that accepting assistance would mean a loss of independence.

Others want to ask for help but may be wary of rejection. A single mom when she was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma in 2002, Sharon Anderson of San Francisco remembers how hard it was for her to reach out.

Cancer is such an isolating circumstance—people can walk you up to the door, but you’re the one who’s going in.

“I made the assumption friends were busy, had their own kids,” says Anderson, now 50. “I didn’t feel close enough in those relationships where I could ask for help. That was a wake-up call that I needed those kinds of relationships. I needed to give that way, and to be able to receive that way.”

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