Caring for Someone with Cancer

June 15, 2010

Caring for each other

Managing a chronic disease requires a coordinated approach between the patient, doctor, and caregiver. Here you'll find tips to help manage chronic conditions that caregivers are often faced with.

You've just learned a family member or friend has cancer. Instantly, your mind jumps to the future: What will happen to you, your family, and the person with cancer?

One of the biggest changes will be how you interact with the person who has cancer. You'll still have your relationship as spouse, child, or friend but you may take on additional responsibilities, too.

What Will You Do?

Caring for someone with cancer is a role many people take on. If you do, you'll join a rapidly growing group: You'll be a caregiver. About 1.3 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year, and family members care for more than half of them. How you respond as a caregiver depends on many factors, including:

  • The type of cancer your friend or family member has
  • How he or she reacts to treatment
  • His or her preferences
  • Your own health and what you want to do

The kind and amount of care you offer will vary throughout your caregiving journey. A job description for a full-time caregiver might read like this:

Wanted: Caring, compassionate person to serve as companion, cook, chauffeur, housekeeper, nurse, healthcare advocate, financial manager, personal assistant, cheerleader, and more.

What's Unique When Caring for Someone With Cancer?

Caring for someone with cancer is demanding and stressful, regardless of your coping skills. Caregivers provide emotional as well as practical care. That's why hospitals and healthcare professionals realize the need to reach out to caregivers with education, resources, and support. It's important for caregivers to gain confidence and knowledge, including an understanding of common side effects of cancer and treatment.

What Side Effects Should You Look For?

Fatigue is the most common side effect. Fatigue means much more than simply being tired. The entire body feels drained no matter how much has been done or not done. Fatigue results from cancer using the body's energy or from treatments such as radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy. Stress, weight loss, and lack of sleep also can cause fatigue.

Signs of fatigue include:
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Impatience
Fatigue may follow a pattern. For instance, it may occur:
  • After treatments
  • During certain times of the day
  • After taking medication

Fatigue affects a person's ability to perform everyday tasks like getting dressed, attending to personal hygiene, moving around, and taking part in enjoyable activities. It can be short-lived or last a long time. Ask your doctor about ways to minimize fatigue.

Pain is another cancer-related symptom. As a caregiver, you can help your family member assess the level of pain. Doing so can help you determine when medication is needed and which medications work best.

Skin problems are a common issue. Skin problems can include bed sores, swelling, itching, and rashes.

Bowel problems such as diarrhea and constipation often accompany cancer and cancer treatments.

What Can You Do for Yourself?

As a caregiver, it's important to ask family, friends, and neighbors for help. It's critical to maintain your own health so you can be there for your family member. Reaching out is key!

One of the first places to go for help is your doctor. In addition, check the Website of the hospital treating your family member or friend.

Also, you can search the Internet. If you type "caring for someone with cancer" in a search engine, you'll find more than 600,000 links. But be sure to check who developed the site. Is it a university, medical establishment, or other reliable organization? Are they selling something? Do they require membership?

You may want to start with these Websites for cancer-related organizations:

American Cancer Society
CancerCare
Cancer Hope Network
Cancer Legal Resource Center
Cancer Survivors On Line
Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) National Center on Caregiving
Family Caregiving eXtension
National Cancer Institute
www.caregiving.org
WebMD

Caring for someone with cancer may seem overwhelming. Hang in there. You'll gain confidence, resources, and knowledge along the way. You'll also find people willing to serve as guides on your caregiving journey. All you have to do is ask.

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