“One in four people diagnosed with cancer in the UK will lack support from family or friends during their treatment and recovery – that represents more than 70,000 people each year.”

This is the headline statistic from a new report by Macmillan Cancer Support, who surveyed more than 1,700 recently diagnosed cancer patients and 150 healthcare professionals who treat cancer patients. Participants were asked to talk about the social support they received during treatment, and what effect this had on their physical and emotional wellbeing.

This latest research adds to a growing evidence base demonstrating the serious and detrimental impact of loneliness and isolation on our mental and physical health. It particularly highlights the relationship between loneliness and poor health, and how isolation can have a direct influence on harmful behaviours. Key findings include:

  • Isolated patients were more likely to make poor treatment decisions: more than half (53%) of healthcare professionals say patients have decided to skip treatment altogether because they have no support from family or friends
  • Isolated patients were less like to manage their medical and personal care: More than one in six have been unable to collect a prescription for their medication and 53% have skipped meals or not eaten properly
  • Serious ill health increases our risk of loneliness and isolation: 80% of respondents said the financial cost of cancer means they can’t afford to see their family or friends as much.

The research also identified one step that could be taken to overcome this issue: Over a third of healthcare professionals and 47% of GPs “do not always ask if a patient has support from family or friends”.

For nearly a year, the Campaign to End Loneliness has been working to support health and wellbeing boards to use their position of leadership within local health and care systems to tackle loneliness. There are many solutions, but an important first step is to ensure all healthcare professionals (and other frontline workers) are aware that loneliness is a serious, and mutually reinforcing problem for many people. This group includes cancer patients – but also individuals living with chronic conditions, loss of mobility and sensory loss amongst other things, as all of these increase our vulnerability to loneliness.

Health and wellbeing boards can support the identification of loneliness and established other systems to help:  from referral pathways to signposting help like the Macmillan Support Line or other local services. By working to help patients avoid loneliness, they ultimately make a positive impact on their population’s mental and physical health – and reduce the need for primary health care services.

These boards adopt their official duties on the 1st of April, so they have just under 50 days to respond to this new research and make sure addressing loneliness and isolation is part of their strategic plan to improve health and wellbeing in their locality.

A full copy of the report from Macmillan can be found here.