Loneliness is a significant health concern for many patients with cancer, especially those who are unmarried (never married, are widowed or divorced) or lack psychological or social support. It can have a surprising effect on quality of life and mortality risk regardless of presence of depression in patients coping with cancer. Furthermore, feelings of loneliness increase over time after a cancer diagnosis.1,2

Oncology nurses now have a new tool for helping address loneliness in their patients: LISTEN. This program was developed by Laurie Theeke, PhD, RN, a nurse practitioner in the West Virginia University (WVU) School of Medicine and associate professor in the WVU School of Nursing, with funding from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. The purpose of LISTEN is to provide lonely adults with the skills needed to explore what makes them lonely and strategies to help them feel more connected.

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“In our first trial of LISTEN, one of the most surprising findings was that the group that did not receive an intervention for loneliness continued to decline in functional ability over a period that was just 12 weeks after the study,” Dr Theeke told Oncology Nurse Advisor.

For the pilot program, the researchers enrolled 27 chronically ill seniors from Appalachia who reported feelings of loneliness. The participants performed activities and writing exercises that touched on their experiences with loneliness in 2-hour weekly sessions that met for 5 weeks.

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The LISTEN program is easily adaptable to any cancer treatment institution. For example, in one session, Dr Theeke instructed participants to bring an object that made them think of belonging to the session, then asked them to share the story behind the object with the group.

As part of a final writing assignment, participants were asked to write news headlines that could summarized what they learned through the program. They came up with these: “Find Yourself First,” “Don’t Be in a Hurry,” “Stay Connected to Friends While You’re Young,” and “Treat Loneliness as a Thief in the Night.”

The results of the pilot trial were very promising. Participants reported feeling less lonely, perceived more social support in their lives, and had healthier blood pressures 12 weeks after the program’s conclusion.