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Oncology Family Caregivers—Who Is Taking Care of Them?

Oncology Family Caregivers
Oncology Family Caregivers

It would be very unusual for a cancer patient to go through diagnosis and treatment and recovery without a loved one by their side. And this loved one is usually a family member who is serving in the role of caregiver, even though she or he has likely never before been involved in supporting and taking care of someone with cancer.

What are the odds?

And this caregiver is likely to be you. So, if not yet, you should probably anticipate becoming one in the future. Why? Because 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women get a life-threatening form of cancer in their lifetime.

So the chances are pretty good that you will find yourself accompanying a family member (who has now become a cancer patient) to consultations, surgery, chemo, and other treatment sessions.

The health team will turn to you

And during each of these visits, you will be instructed by the oncology providers about what to do for your loved one between doctors’ visits, when you are home. Very soon, in fact, you’ll notice that all these cancer-care specialists are assuming that it’s your fulltime job—your sole reason for existing—to care for your beloved.

Through this whole ordeal, you won’t be provided with much support for yourself.

Traits of caretakers

Research has shown that a family caregiver will typically put their own needs on hold for an indefinite period of time while caring for their loved one. And, since many people are elderly when they’re diagnosed with some form of cancer, it makes sense that those taking care of them will also often be older. This factor of age in turn means that the family caregiver may likely have a chronic health condition themselves, such as diabetes, heart disease, respiratory problems, or arthritis—all of which may become worse due to the stress of caregiving, or to the caregivers’ not taking care of themselves.

There are even situations in which a caregiver may suspect, based on a dominant symptom, that they themselves have cancer of some kind. And yet a caregiver in this position will often not seek medical care as long as their loved one still struggles with cancer.

Financial aid, too

Family caregivers not only have to provide physical, social, psychological, and spiritual care, but also in some cases with must support their loved one financially through the cancer treatment.

One other factor that has increased the burden on family caregivers over time: more and more cancer treatments are being provided in outpatient settings rather than in the inpatient settings, where healthcare professionals do the majority of the actual care and patient support.

Overlaid on top of all these other factors is today’s troubled economic situation, which forces the family caregiver to continue working outside of the home so they can pay the bills and maintain their health insurance through work.

Coping with caregiving

There are, however, only so many hours in a day. Something has to suffer, and usually that is the health and wellbeing of the family caregiver. As time progresses, especially for those whose loved one will die of their cancer, the stress and inability to cope grow for the caregiver.

How can a family caregiver like you cope during this distressing time in your life?

  • Tell someone about your troubles. One way is simply to tell your loved one’s oncologist or nurse navigator about all the challenges you are experiencing. (Do not, of course, hold this conversation within earshot of the patient you are supporting.)
  • Investigate support groups. Consider asking about the availability of a support group, a place where caregivers gather, either face to face or online, to chat, exchange ideas, and provide encouragement to one another.
  • Request help. Ask others at home to help you provide for the patient’s needs. Don’t assume you need to furnish all the support alone. Identify others, whether family members, neighbors, or friends, who can provide respite for you, as well as shoulder part of the caregiving load.
  • Take time for yourself. Take the time to exercise daily, even if only for 10 minutes a day, as a means to help you re-engage in a healthier life. Reestablishing some healthy behaviors is important because family caregivers, just like their loved ones, often gain weight while at home, become more sedentary, and dig into the high-calorie and high-fat comfort foods that friends have dropped off at the home.
  • See your primary care physician (PCP). When did you last have screening tests done for the cancers for which you are at risk? If you have missed appointments for screening tests that you need, go ahead now and schedule those tests, whether it is a mammography or a colonoscopy or a skin check.
  • Seek other resources. Inquire of the oncology nurse navigator about resources for stress management and, when appropriate, ask for a referral to a psychotherapist or counselor for a professional intervention.

“Patient-centered care” is the new buzzword nowadays, but perhaps this concept needs to be rephrased as “patient-and-family-centered care.” If the oncology team doesn’t take the initiative to address your needs, speak up, because if your health fails, who will care for and support your loved one? Remember to make time to take care of yourself. We certainly don’t want to risk you yourself becoming a cancer patient due to neglecting your own health!


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