CHICAGO — Claudia Peyton went to the doctor’s office alone to receive the terrifying diagnosis.
Doctors told her she had an aggressive breast cancer that would require surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Treatments would be so intense, she’d need rides to every appointment. And sometimes she would be too sick to get out of bed.
“All I could do was sob,” said Peyton, 55, who is single and remembers coming back to her studio apartment afterward and collapsing in grief. “There was fear and anxiety, and I wanted to feel supported.”
So the former adjunct fine arts professor at Northern Illinois University and Harper College did what she had to do to get through her illness. She assembled a remarkable team of family, friends and, ultimately, strangers, who drove her to chemotherapy sessions, brought over dinner and even did fundraising to make sure her bills were paid when she was too sick to work.
“I’d come from an upbringing where I believed that I had to do everything alone,” said Peyton. “I think when you realize when your life might be limited, all my baggage needed to go and I needed to invite people in for support.”
Alone as Peyton felt after her diagnosis last year, the experience is becoming increasingly common for a growing number of single people like her diagnosed with cancer and facing the prospect of fighting for their lives alone, experts say.
Their solo efforts to triumph over the disease are inspiring additional resources and training for medical staff as well as encouraging new support groups, according to advocates.
“As people are choosing to live alone and are living longer, this situation is going to become more and more normal,” said Lidia Schapira, an editorial board member for Cancer.net, a website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “It’s really important for us to understand the community the patient is coming from.”
The American Cancer Society doesn’t track how many are single at the time of a cancer diagnosis, but last year, more than 34,000 people in Illinois who were alone or had nowhere else to turn depended on the organization for transportation, health counseling or even just a friendly voice on the phone. That number is up from 31,215 the year before, and 27,125 in 2009, according to the society.
Recognizing this, oncologists and medical staff are learning how important it is to inquire early on if a patient has support. “The first thing the oncologist should say is, “I notice you’ve come alone. Is there somebody who is going to be able to help you?” said Schapira. “You need people to be there to help you with their time, their ideas and sometimes even their practical resources.”
Today, 67 percent of those diagnosed with all types of cancer are expected to live an average of five years or longer, a higher survival rate than ever before, according to the American Cancer Society. But when a patient doesn’t have adequate support, it can be hard to feel optimistic about their chances.
“It’s just very emotional,” said Cathy Galligan, director of patient navigation services for the cancer society. “So to get somebody at the time of diagnosis, or shortly after, to know that there’s help available — it’s very important to give them help and hope.”
After receiving the news, Peyton allowed one of her sisters to create and keep a blog seeking prayers and financial contributions. She sought out a spiritual adviser with whom she scheduled phone conversations after important check-ups and other emotional moments.
Most notably, she created a weekly email that she called her “Support Needs List.”
The story is a refreshing change from what medical experts more typically see when single people deal with cancer on their own, said Michelle Peters, a nurse at Swedish Covenant Hospital, who helped Peyton navigate the treatment process. “I think a lot of time, people’s needs are not met because they’re not expressed,” Peters said.