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Coping with Cancer & Caregiving

Given the impact that cancer can have on one's body, mind, spirit, work life, finances, relationships, and sex life, it's no wonder that 35-45% of cancer patients and survivors experience signficant distress. In addition, studies have shown that distress is often as high, if not higher in family caregivers, than in cancer patients.

This distress -- the anxiety, fears, and sadness that get in the way of functioning -- isn't something you just have to suffer through on your own. If you find cancer stress is getting in the way of your doing the things you want to do, or of you feeling like yourself, consider getting help and support from someone who knows and understands the unique stressors of cancer and caregiving. Isn't dealing with cancer hard enough? Why not take care of your mind and heart, as well as your body, and get the support you need and deserve?

Dealing with the Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis is a life-shaking event for most people. It can signficantly disrupt one's family and work life. Treatments can cause uncomfortable side effects and lasting changes. Finances may be strained. A patient may worry about the effect it has on other family members. At the same time, people are remarkably resilient, and often find their relationships to be closer than ever and their own strength and endurance a surprise. Cancer is one of those things that can change one's whole life perspective, for better and for worse.

During the diagnosis and treatment phase, there can be a number of signficant stressors -- difficult decisions to make, coping with treatment side effects and work loss, adjusting to changing family roles, and trying to manage day to day life. Family and friends often provide tremendous emotional and practical help and the health care team can be a great source information and support. It is important to draw on all available sources of support during this time.

Sometimes, having a place to problem solve, express feelings, and talk through some of the issues may be helpful, as well. Few people know that there are a number of relaxation and imagery techniques that can help with managing side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. And there are lots of techniques for improving one's coping ability and refocusing one's thoughts.

Adjusting to Survivorship

Many people are surprised to hear that it is common for anxiety and distress to go UP at the end of treatment, rather than down. Friends and family may expect you to feel relieved now that treatment is over and to get back to "normal." The problem is, after a cancer diagnosis, and weeks or months of treatment, readjusting to life isn't always easy.

Feelings that were put aside during treatment, may come flooding back all at once. You may feel emotionally exhausted, and although some of it could be related to the lingering side effects of treatment, you may also be experiencing psychological and spiritual fatigue. After a period of actively fighting the cancer with various treatments, you may be wondering "what now?". The loss of regular contact and support of your health care team may have you feeling lost. Finding your way back into your family life, work life, and sense of self and purpose can be harder than you expected. Cancer changes everything. If you are experiencing any of these thoughts and feelings, counseling and therapy may be helpful to you.

Relationship Changes

The shift from equal partners, in a marriage or committed relationship, to the patient-caregiver relationship can be difficult.  When one partner takes care of another during illness, the roles can feel unequal, more like a nurse-patient relationship or even like a parent-child relationship. This can be both difficult for both of you to adjust to. If your loved-one was someone who was used to being independent or was used to taking care of others, it may be very difficult for them to assume the “patient” role and let you and others care for them.

Just as it may have been difficult to adjust to the roles of caregiver and patient, it may be difficult to change back, and resume roles as equal partners after months, or perhaps years, of treatment and recovery.  It can be especially hard to resume an intimate relationship, because of physical changes, emotional and psychological changes, and role shifts. You don't have to go it alone. Let someone who has specialty experience in this area help you and your loved-one connect again.

Coping with Caring and Caregiving

Friends and family are affected by cancer, too. It is extremely hard to see someone you love struggle with a diagnosis of cancer and its treatment. You may worry about losing them and wondering what your life would be like without them.  You may be afraid, or unable, to be as intimate as you once were.  You might feel hesitant to share your feelings for fear of burdening them. 

You also probably have been taking on new or additional roles, as well. Loved-ones often serve as patient advocates, providers of information to family and friends, cheerleaders for the patient trying to keep their spirits up, lay-nurses if medical or personal assistance is needed, not to mention cook, driver, house cleaner, etc. Family members usually take on these duties without much thought, not realizing that they have now shifted into a role as caregiver.  However, over time, the combination of all those thoughts, feelings, and roles can begin to take a toll on one's emotional and physical health.

You may be surprised to learn that the most important thing 
that you can do as a caregiver is to take care of yourself.  

Your ability to be a good caregiver, to be able to provide the help and support needed, is completely dependent on your maintaining your own physical and mental health.  If you become physically exhausted or emotionally overwhelmed, you will not be able to provide the care you want to give your loved one, and both of you will suffer.  You may find counseling to be helpful to you as a way to take better care of yourself.