Life gets complicated in so many ways when you are a caregiver to someone with cancer. Here’s how to cope.
I faced and overcame many struggles caring for my wife during her 17-and-a-half years battle with cancer. Often I felt like a single parent to our two young children. I had to manage our household while holding down a high-level job and caring and advocating for Mary during her breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death. I shared that story in a book titled Still Have Faith.
You may not have thought about it unless it has happened to you, but life changes when a person is told “You have cancer.” Not only does life change for the patient, but also for the family members, especially the caregiver.
When Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do, so I started with research. I was shocked to learn that approximately 25 percent of men leave their wife when they first learn of her cancer diagnosis, and 70 percent of men will leave within two years of their wife’s terminal prognosis.
Despite statistics indicating that husbands are not typically willing to be a caregiver to their terminally ill wife, I was committed to Mary with our marriage vow “Until death do us part.” I thought several times about giving up, especially after life threw me another curve ball when my father died. I know that even good men struggle with their commitment “For better or for worse …”
There has been a shift in cancer treatment, so the patients spend far less time in the hospital and more in outpatient treatment centers. This trend means that sicker people are being cared for at home, which has led to a need for the family to be part of the day-to-day care of the person with cancer. When committed, the husband as caregiver can play a key role in the wife’s direct care.
As a husband-caregiver, you can have a huge influence on how your wife deals with her illness. Your care and encouragement can help your wife stick with the demanding cancer treatment and take other steps to get well. If you are committed to your wife and the marriage vows you made to her, you too can beat the statistics with some knowledge, faith, and hope.
Caregivers have many roles that change as the patient’s needs change. Caregivers arrange schedules, manage insurance issues, and provide transportation. They are legal assistants, financial managers, and housekeepers. They often have to take over the duties of the person with cancer in order to meet the needs of other family members, while still managing the caregiver’s own responsibilities.
While the wife/patient is at home, the husband/caregiver gives prescribed medicines and then reports side effects to the doctor. Caregivers often have to keep track of prescriptions, know which tests are to be done, and make sure all members of the healthcare team know of any changes with the patient.
They also try to keep other family members and friends updated, and help to decide whether a treatment is working. Caregivers often find themselves keeping track of paperwork to prevent mix-ups. In most cases, the caregiver is the one person who knows everything that’s going on with the patient.
Good communication with your wife is the most important part of your role as husband/caregiver. Help her live as normal a life as possible. Encourage and support her efforts to share her emotions and thoughts. For instance, if she begins talking to you about her feelings about cancer, don’t change the subject. Listen, and let her talk. Afterward, you may want to share how you are feeling, too.
You may find your wife is acting differently: angry, quiet and withdrawn, or just sad. If you get the feeling that she isn’t talking to you honestly because she wants to spare your feelings, let her know you are open to listening, even about tough topics. As Dr. John Gray discusses in his book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, women typically talk to vent and do not expect us to fix the situation. Chances are you will feel as though you should but can’t fix it, and this leads to frustration.
Despite the initial shock and eventual sadness of having a loved one with cancer, many people find personal satisfaction in being a caregiver to a loved one. As a husband, you may see being your wife’s caregiver as a meaningful role that allows you to show your love and respect for her. It may also feel good to be helpful and know that she needs you.
You may find that caregiving enriches your life, and gives you a deep sense of satisfaction, confidence, and accomplishment in caring for your wife while she is sick, and especially when she is dying. You may also learn about your own inner strengths and abilities you didn’t know you had, and find a greater sense of purpose for your own life.
Caregiving can also be frustrating and painful. Caring for your wife as she is going through cancer treatment is not only demanding, but also disheartening. It’s quite normal to feel overwhelmed, burdened, and even trapped while caregiving and wonder “why me?” As a Christian, I asked God that question many times over the years.
You may ask “What about my needs and feelings?” Again, I did that, too. Caring for a cancer patient can be very stressful and exhausting. It takes emotional, spiritual, and physical strength. It also takes time — Primary caregivers spend more than 8 hours a day caring for cancer patients.
While doing research after Mary’s diagnosis and along the way, I read that caregivers of cancer patients reported they felt they would find it helpful to talk to someone who had been through a similar experience. More than half had not been able to satisfy this need. That is one of the reasons I wrote my book and started a local grief group, so that people affected by cancer can know they are not alone in their struggles. Having a sense of community and belonging is part of self-care.
Overwhelming concern for your wife with cancer may distract you from self-care and you may forget to eat, not get enough sleep and exercise, and ignore your own physical health concerns. It is critical that you give attention to your self-care or you will burn out fast. This may seem to conflict with the needs of the patient, but self-care will allow you to have better mental clarity, emotional stability, and physical energy to more effectively manage your wife’s care, the household, and your employment responsibilities.
Caring for your wife throughout her cancer treatment is one of the most difficult jobs you will ever undertake. No matter what you do, you may come to feel that you have failed in some way. I still feel that I made mistakes with Mary, but you do the best you can with the mindset and resources you have at that time.
It is important not to blame yourself. Find a way to forgive yourself and move forward. Try to keep a sense of humor about your mistakes. Most important: Try to recognize those things that you are doing well for your wife, for yourself, and with your family. These positives are too easy to overlook. Your compassion and effort demonstrate your integrity. Your unconditional love for your wife and the marriage vows you continue to take seriously give you an edge to being caregiver to your wife when she has cancer.
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