Sarah Cannon - August 29, 2018

The cancer journey can be a difficult and challenging time not only for the patient, but also the caregiver, who is often a family member. Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Medical City Healthcare Navigation Director, Emily Gentry, and Oncology Survivorship Navigator, Katie Narvarte, share ways that caregivers can best support their loved ones through communication every step of the way, while also caring for themselves. 

1.  Understand How Your Loved One Is Feeling

It is important to understand that when a person receives a cancer diagnosis, both the patient and their loved one will often experience a grieving period. As a caregiver, recognizing and accepting this natural process will give you insights into your loved one’s emotional health, and how you can best support them during this difficult time. For example, a patient may experience grief over the feeling of losing control, and you may notice that the he or she is not wanting to seek out support. However, if you keep in mind that this is a normal process, you can help reassure them that these feelings may just be underlying emotions that they are working through during this challenging time. 

Consider what might be causing a patient to feel and act a certain way. If, for example, he or she is not adhering to their treatment plan, it may be that the educational materials aren’t resonating with them. Or perhaps the patient is distant, and not communicating how he or she is feeling. They may be fearful of something, or concerned that they may be burdening you or your family. Always offer the patient a safe place to explore their emotions and communicate to you how they’re feeling. 

If there are children involved, there are resources that are available to your family. A child life therapist, for example, can offer ideas on how to foster communication during this time. 

2. Don’t Let Cancer Define You

Cancer will impact you and your loved ones, but it doesn’t have to define you. Patients often need a distraction from cancer. If you sense this, try to avoid talking about it all the time. Focus on the positive things instead of concentrating on the losses. The cancer journey is shaped so much by your outlook, you and your loved one can come out the other side stronger, more grateful, and with new perspectives.

3.Work Together & Establish Boundaries

As you support your loved one through this time, is it important to establish boundaries. Remember that you are two different people experiencing two different things, and it is important that you communicate that to one another. There may be times, for example, when the patient feels angry or is not following their treatment plan. Understand that you can arm them with tools and education, and get help from other resources including social workers, counselors, and medical teams, but that it is not your job to fix them.

4.Remember To Take Care of Yourself

As the caregiver you are also going through a difficult time. You are caring for someone with cancer, and so you are too are going on your own cancer journey. By working through your own emotions, you will be a better support person for your loved one. This may be difficult because you’ll want to put your loved one’s needs before your own, but remember the airplane mask rule - Always put on your own mask before assisting others! Also, consider joining a caregiver support group in your community so that you can talk to others who are going through the same thing you are.

5. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

If you need help, don’t hesitate to enlist help from friends, family and members from your community. These people want to support you and your loved one during this time, so ask for help with specific tasks such as organizing meals, babysitting, sitting with a loved one at home and helping with transportation. 

6. Be Prepared & Know When To Use Resources

It’s crucial that both the patient and the caregiver educate themselves about cancer, and speak with doctors and nurses about any signs and symptoms they may need to be aware of. If you are concerned about something and the patient either refuses to acknowledge it or speak with you about it, enlist other people who the patient may trust such as doctors, nurses and social workers.

7. You’re A Team

Always remember that the patient and the caregiver are a team. Take the time to get to the core of what needs to be communicated and identify together the best channels for communication during the cancer journey so that you come out on the other side stronger together.