When a loved one is battling cancer, being there for them during potentially life-saving treatments requires strength, patience and compassion.
“Chemotherapy is scary and causes anxiety,” says Jean Sachs, CEO of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. “People don’t know what to expect, or how they’ll react to the drugs. They’re anxious about hair loss, fatigue and how it’s going to change their body image and self-esteem.”
Understanding the difficulties
Members of a support team need to realize there are both physical and emotional concerns surrounding chemotherapy.
“A woman looks in the mirror and doesn’t recognize herself. Women who have children wonder if the process will scare them. For people who are very active, the fatigue can make them depressed.”
There are appetite changes and taste sensitivities. Neuropathy and insomnia may occur. Depending on the patient’s age, the onset of early menopause may have to be addressed. Younger patients can feel they are falling outside of their peer group and may worry about dating or whether they’ll be able to have children.
Knowing what’s needed
In addition to taking them to treatments, caregivers typically help with patients’ daily needs. Maintaining a positive attitude is crucial, along with keeping a regular routine. “People going through chemotherapy want to be treated like they’re a normal person, and feel that cancer hasn’t consumed their entire life,” says Sachs. “They want to be part of things.”
Being an effective caregiver involves knowing what’s helpful, and what isn’t.
“Many people can be pretty active during chemotherapy, and continue to exercise, go to work and travel. Take your cues from the patient. Some women want to continue to cook and shop, while others welcome a break from the kitchen.”
Enduring tough times
Sara Strauss, 34, served as her mother’s full-time caregiver during the last three years of her long fight with metastatic breast cancer.
“When her doctor told her she needed to start chemo, it was like a bomb had dropped on all of us,” Strauss says. “Chemo was pretty terrible for her. It started off being relatively okay, but she was switched to a more aggressive form that really made her blood count numbers just hit the floor. The fatigue was another really bad side effect.”
Somehow, they pushed forward, telling jokes, working puzzles and leaning on each other.
“We could always squeeze each other’s hands — that was our strength,” Strauss says. “She and I always got through things together with smiles on our faces, even when things were really terrible.”
Letting off steam was also therapeutic for Strauss. “Caregiving is just as ugly as it is beautiful, and I think all too often that fact isn’t properly acknowledged. Sad is okay. Angry is okay. Frustrated is okay, too.”
Reaching out to others
Anyone assuming the caregiver role needs to know his or her limits, and be willing to ask for help from others. “Find ways to share the responsibility,” advises Sachs. “Don’t be afraid to set rules, and ask specifically for what you need.”
“There are resources in the community and online,” adds Sachs. “Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who’s going through the caregiving experience.”
Finally, for Strauss, it was about making each day with her mom count and being in the moment.
“Be as normal as you can. Have friends. Go out to dinner. Watch Netflix. Read the paper. Be in nature. And, most important, notice the little things.”