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Published on June 22, 2018

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Caregiving for someone with cancer

A caregiver is defined here as the person who most often helps the person with cancer and is not paid to do so. In most cases, the main (primary) caregiver is a spouse, partner, parent or an adult child. When family is not around, close friends, co-workers or neighbors may fill this role. The caregiver has a key role in the patient's care. Good, reliable caregiver support is crucial to the physical and emotional well-being of people with cancer.

Today, most cancer treatment is given in outpatient treatment centers, such as Gundersen's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders—not in hospitals. This means someone is needed to be part of the day-to-day care of the person with cancer. As a result, caregivers often have many roles. These roles change as the patient's needs change during and after cancer treatment.

Caregivers serve as home health aides and companions. If needed, they may help feed, dress and bathe the patient. Caregivers arrange schedules, manage insurance issues and provide transportation. They can be legal assistants, financial managers and housekeepers. They also often have to take over the duties of the person with cancer, and still meet the needs of other family members.

On top of the normal day-to-day tasks, such as meals, cleaning and driving or arranging transportation, as a caregiver, you'll also become an important part of the cancer care team. This busy schedule could leave you with little time to take care of your own needs. Here are some things to think about if you are about to become a caregiver for a person with cancer.

What does it feel like to be a caregiver?

Despite the sadness and shock of having a loved one with cancer, many people find personal satisfaction in caring for that person. You may see it as a meaningful role that allows you to show your love and respect for the person. It may also feel good to be helpful and know that you're needed by a loved one.

You might find that caregiving enriches your life. You might feel a deep sense of satisfaction, confidence, and accomplishment in caring for someone. You may also learn about inner strengths and abilities that you didn't even know you had, and find a greater sense of purpose for your own life.

Caregiving can also be frustrating and painful. People caring for very sick patients may notice their own feelings of severe sadness and emotional distress. They may feel sadness and grief over their loved one's illness and may also feel overwhelmed or frustrated as they try to manage many difficult problems.

Caregivers can develop physical symptoms, like tiredness and trouble sleeping. This is more likely to be a problem for caregivers who aren't able to get the support they need, and who don't take care of themselves—especially those who try to press forward alone, even as their own quality of life suffers.

You'll need to take care of yourself, too

It's hard to plan for a major health problem like cancer. Suddenly you've been asked to care for the person with cancer, and you're also needed to help make decisions about medical care and treatment. None of this is easy. There will be times when you know you've done well, and times when you just want to give up. This is normal.

There are many causes of stress and distress in cancer caregivers. Dealing with the crisis of cancer in someone you love, the uncertain future, financial worries, difficult decisions and unexpected and unwanted lifestyle changes are just a few of them. Fear, hopelessness, guilt, confusion, doubt, anger and helplessness can take a toll on both the person with cancer and the caregiver. And while the focus tends to be on the patient, all of this will affect your physical and mental health, too.

Most caregivers hesitate to take a break from their caregiving responsibilities, even for a short time. In fact, most would probably feel guilty if they did this. But no one can be a caregiver every day, 24 hours a day, for many months and even years. Try to get out of the house and away from your loved one every day—even if it's only to take a short walk or to shop for food.

Most importantly, don't try to do it all yourself. Caregiving alone for any period of time is not realistic. Reach out to others. Involve them in your life and in the things you must do for your loved one.

*Article adapted from the American Cancer Society.

Love + Medicine

Every day, Gundersen Health System staff deliver great medicine plus a little something extra—we call it Love + Medicine.

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