“Honey, I can do that for you.” Hubby couldn’t reach his feet due to swelling, and I offered to clip his toenails. I’m sorry to report that I may have clipped the top of his big toe. (But only because he jerked in anticipation of me clipping the top of his toe.)
In view of my tendency toward injuring the patient, I thought I’d better ask the experts what they did well while caring for a spouse, a child, a parent with cancer.
Photo credit: Pixabay
From the experts, here are 15 ways to rock cancer caregiving:
- Ask yourself, ‘What does the patient want?’
A breast cancer survivor wrote: “After my hair began falling out in chunks, we decided to take charge … [My husband’s] hand trembled as he shaved my head with tears in his eyes. Very emotional day.” And then, not long afterward, while my friend was having a chemo infusion, her husband showed up with his head shaved!
“My wife let us know that she didn’t want any head shaving in her honor! It was enough for her to lose hers; she didn’t want any lookalikes,” wrote a caregiver husband. “The most important thing for her was to know I would be there every step of the way. So far, so good.”
A friend says that her mother survived 12 years with cancer, but her father declined treatment when he later was diagnosed. “He chose not to live a few extra months if it meant enduring the misery of treatment,” wrote his daughter, “and we respected that.”
- Keep things normal, whatever normal is.
A young mom caring for her husband in a busy household with two active children wrote, “The best thing has been keeping the kids busy and in a normal routine, but at the same time accepting that we also have a new ‘normal’ for our family.”
“Keep things as normal as you can as you are loving them up and trying to make every minute count,” wrote my friend who had just a few months with her husband after his diagnosis.
- Make time to just be with the patient.
A young friend wrote about “going to so many of [my mom’s] appointments, cooking dinner at my parents’ house and eating with them as often as possible, and going with my mom to pick out her wig.”
“My husband did so many wonderful things,” wrote a breast cancer survivor. “Still does! The best was making me laugh, cracking jokes and being silly; making me comfortable at home, getting me tea, blankets, whatever I needed; just being with me, not even talking or doing anything, just hanging out.”
As Hubby slowed down, I set an intention to also slow down. I put away projects and lists, and we took slower walks together. We sat in lawn chairs overlooking the river, eating simple al fresco meals. I read more and knitted more — anything I could do in the same room as Hubby dozed. And I don’t regret a single slowing-down day.
- Keep communication lines open.
“Talk. Be open,” said the mom of a young teenaged son dealing with cancer.
“My husband [kept] my family, friends and coworkers informed via thoughtful emails,” wrote a breast cancer survivor.
After Hubby’s diagnosis, we lost the first full year to despair. My mother lived with us and was sinking into dementia. When my younger brother flew her to Florida for a month-long visit, for the first time in a year, Hubby talked about all the side issues that accompany a terminal cancer diagnosis — death, financial fall-out, feeling like a failure as a man. And talking made all the difference in the world.
- Keep hope alive.
“Try to keep a positive attitude,” wrote the husband of a lung cancer patient, even though he admitted this was very difficult.
Hubby was the analytical sort who first saw all that could go wrong before he saw the possibilities. He liked to refer to himself as a realist. “No, honey, you’re a pessimist,” I corrected. He’d grin his cute grin and then meet me halfway, “Okay, I’m a realistic pessimist.” (I don’t think there’s such a thing.) When it came to cancer, though, Hubby didn’t give up. He didn’t accept the physician’s deadline; instead, it was a challenge for him to beat. I loved that my realistic pessimist husband faced cancer with optimism and hope.
- Try to see the humorous.
A breast cancer survivor and her husband were waiting in an exam room after the reconstruction surgeon had given them a silicone breast implant to touch and look at. They engaged in a game of catch, testing the implant for strength. The absurdity of the situation caused quite a bit of laughter.
- Be as organized as possible.
A caregiver with young children said they bought a large dry erase board calendar “to write all of our appointments and the kids’ activities on.” Not only did the calendar keep the family organized, it also helped ease the husband’s frustration from not remembering things.
One wife — knowing how much her husband would enjoy company but knowing how easily he tired — actually scheduled his male friends to come for a short visit. Now that’s brilliant.
- Run interference when necessary.
A prostate cancer survivor says he couldn’t handle small things right after surgery. “[My wife] ran interference for me with all nurses, docs, friends, comfort dogs, the Pope.” Which freed him up to rest. “Only very important people got through her to me.”
- Take good notes at medical appointments.
Several caregivers mentioned being at all doctor appointments and taking copious notes. The mother of a teenaged son who survived cancer wrote, “Our family became a TEAM. Each of us would hear or remember different things that at some point became critical.”
The wife of a cancer survivor admitted taking good notes because, “it seemed like [my husband] and I could be in the same room and hear completely different things or interpret them differently.”
The wife of a throat cancer survivor, when she saw depression sink in, reached out to the doctor prior to appointments so he could gently address the issue without her husband needing to bring it up.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
“Don’t be intimidated by the doctors,” wrote a friend whose son is surviving cancer. “You are basically their employer … you have the power!”
If you don’t understand something, ask questions: “Can you please explain it to me like I’m in eighth grade?”
- Become a medical expert, sort of.
A kind hospice nurse took one friend aside and explained that one of his jobs was to make sure his wife received adequate pain medication. “It was better and easier to keep pain under control than it was to recapture it once the pain broke through.” This young husband said he took those instructions to heart.
My friend with four children wrote, “I became an uncertified infusion nurse and an expert at feeding tubes. I calmly dealt with enemas, feeding tube failures and all the other joys of cancer treatment.”
I emptied nephrostomy bags, flushed nephrostomy tubes, changed dressings. And once, I made it through an entire night administering morphine through Hubby’s PICC line until a bed opened up in Hospice House the next morning. This, I’m pleased to report, without any bodily injury to the patient.
- Get plugged into community.
The mother of a child with cancer writes that spending time with like-minded people was helpful to her. She said that she and her family made an attempt to go to activities where there would be other cancer patients. “Knowing you are not alone can bring strength.”
A survivor says how much she appreciates the friendships that grew out a cancer walking group. “The exercise has almost become secondary to the camaraderie — and the coffee!” Her husband agrees wholeheartedly: “I think we all are encouragement to each other!”
- Be more than just a cheerleader.
I think the best thing I did was come alongside Hubby. Not just sitting on the sidelines and cheering him on, but in the game with him, learning the plays, showing up at all the practices, helping him up when he got blind-sided, allowing him to help me up when I was tackled.
* * *
I wasn’t surprised that none of my caregiving friends commented on the importance of accepting help. And only two of the respondents had anything to say about taking care of themselves. Because that’s what we caregivers tend to do — not ask for help; not take care of ourselves.
- Accept help; or better yet, ask for help.
The load of the caregiver can be significant as they take on more of the day-to-day responsibilities so their loved one can heal. I have a friend whose husband headed up a successful home business. When he was diagnosed with cancer, my friend became the cancer caregiver “while juggling four kids and taking over our business.”
People want to help in meaningful ways. We caregivers need to take off our Super Hero capes and allow them to do so.
- Take care of the caregiver.
The mom of a teenager who lives out in the country takes time for “sipping tea or coffee … or getting out of the house even if it’s just to the end of the driveway.”
“I scheduled time to get refreshed with my walks and coffee with friends,” wrote one caregiver wife. She said this helped her to be strong for her husband so he wouldn’t worry about her. Because “that’s what men do!”
There’s this reminder from Carl Bryan, coach:
“Taking care of you means the people in your life will receive the best of you, not what’s left of you.”
And there you have it. Wisdom from my cancer caregiving friends who were and are on the frontline alongside their wife, husband, child, parent, taking on extra duties to keep life as normal as possible for the people they love.