Caregivers play a critical role in the cancer patient’s journey. But far too often, they underestimate the challenges ahead, not just for the patient they tend, but for their own needs, too. Nearly 3 million Americans provide assistance to a family member or friend with cancer, according to a June 2016 report, and many are unprepared for the road ahead. “The role of cancer caregiver is complex and often challenging or overwhelming,” says Katherine Puckett, PhD, MS, MSW, LCSW – Chief of the Division of Mind-Body Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). “Most caregivers want to help, and they may automatically jump into their new role without realizing what is involved.”
Amanda Cromer says she did that. She cares for both of her parents—her mother, a breast cancer patient, and her father, who is battling stage IV colon cancer. “I take them to medical appointments, carry out their daily chores and responsibilities when they are unable, prepare meals, sit by their side during chemotherapy and doctor’s appointments,” she says. “I even dog sit.”
The more challenging the patients’ needs, the more complex, demanding and stressful the caregiver’s role may be. A 2015 study, Caregiving in the U.S., identified common challenges facing the caregiving community, including performing medical and nursing tasks, balancing career and caregiving responsibilities, and coping with financial strain. The report also found that of the caregivers studied:
- 72 percent provide medical or nursing tasks, such as giving injections or maintaining catheters
- 43 percent say they are unprepared to perform such tasks
- 50 percent report feeling “highly stressed”
Cromer can relate to those statistics. “I was nowhere near ready to perform the entire role of caregiver, considering I, too, am a cancer patient,” says Cromer, who is battling breast cancer. “Some days, my stress level is through the roof. But we caregivers are strong and courageous because that is what is needed in order to get through each day.”
To mark November’s recognition as National Family Caregivers Month, Dr. Puckett offers these tips to help caregivers manage the cancer journey with their loved one:
Make things as easy as possible at home.
- Relax your housekeeping standards.
- Prepare simpler meals.
- Ask for help from friends and family for responsibilities like shopping, cooking, driving to appointments, doing housework or yard work, making or answering phone calls, spending time with your loved one while you go out or walking the dog. Many people want to help, but they don’t know what to do unless you tell them.
Identify and express your feelings with someone who cares and listens. Remember:
- There is no right and wrong way to manage your feelings, but being able to identify and express them often helps.
- Consider turning to a professional counselor, pastor or another supportive person you believe accepts you just as you are.
- Even if someone tells you not to cry, or if you feel ashamed to let someone see your tears, know that crying may be healing.
Take care of yourself as you care for your loved one, even when it is hard to find the time and energy. Being good to yourself is healthy and will likely help you become a better caregiver. Try:
- Sharing your feelings with someone who cares
- Making time to do things you enjoy
- Getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising
- Breathing deeply, stretching, relaxing in the tub and enjoying a good laugh
Strengthen communication with others sharing your cancer journey.
- With your loved one, stay connected and share special moments as much as possible. Listen and be available, but don’t push your loved one to talk.
- With health care professionals, ask them to help educate you about your loved one’s condition. Be prepared and organized when meeting with doctors, such as by providing accurate information, bringing a list of questions and taking notes during doctor visits.
- With family and friends, discuss with your loved one what you should share about his or her condition and treatment. Consider online resources designed to make it easier to communicate to as many people as you want with one message.