For you and your loved ones, a breast cancer diagnosis may feel like a rock thrown into the still waters of your life. As a caregiver it is normal to struggle with feelings of overwhelm and helplessness, especially as your loved one's cancer diagnosis begins to ripple outward causing fear, worry and stress.
The journey with cancer your loved one faces is long and arduous, remember to follow her lead and let her set the tone when discussing her diagnosis, treatment and overall well-being. As her primary caregiver, you may begin to take-on the cooking, cleaning, kids, pets, work life and some home nurse duties. Remember to take one task at a time and at some point during the day, make sure to give yourself some time to relax. Taking care of yourself will become increasingly important to avoid burning out both mentally and physically.
At different points during treatment, your loved one may struggle with her identity as her physical appearance is altered by treatment. It will be important to continue acknowledging her as the uniquely wonderful woman that she is. Be patient and provide reassurance to her as she walks through these changes. Most importantly, remind her that your love is unconditional.
To help you provide emotional support to your loved ones, we recommend researching some of the following phrases:
While this may become one of the most challenging seasons in your life, try to remember that it is also temporary. Light always prevails over darkness and while your priorities in life may change, you will emerge into your new normal together stronger and closer than ever.
If you, or your loved one's, are experiencing signs of emotional distress, reach out to your local cancer centre and request emotional support from a social worker or therapist.
"When you look back it’s definitely a dark time and the toughest in your life but it will also become a time when you had more purpose than you’ve ever had before. You were there to help carry your family through their toughest times."
After being diagnosed with cancer, it is natural that parents are concerned about how the disease and subsequent treatments will affect their family. Often, the top priority is to protect their children from the short- and long-term effects of the illness.
When you first receive a cancer diagnosis, it is normal to worry about how to share that news with your children. It is important to remember that there are no absolute right or wrong ways to talk about your illness with your children.
Just like most parenting situations, your children just want to know that you are there for them, and that they can talk to you about their fears or questions. Children naturally worry about their parents and themselves when a parent is ill. You know your own children best and it is important to listen to your instincts when determining if their responses are in character with their personalities and normal coping style.
We recommend reviewing these resources from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute about how to talk to your children about cancer to help guide you through these conversations.
A tidal wave of appointments will accompany a cancer diagnosis. Wherever possible, offer to drive her to the appointments and attend as many as you can. Most of these appointments will contain shocking information that may leave her feeling overwhelmed, making it difficult to recall everything that was discussed. As her caregiver, you may also have specific questions you need to ask her medical team.
Have a comfortable place in your home for your loved one to rest in during her recovery. We suggest a room with a reclining chair with lots of pillows and access to a T.V. as she will need to sleep sitting up for several weeks after the surgery.
Be prepared that as her caregiver, you may be required to monitor and clean the post surgery drainage lines and bandages. Her medical care team will provide detailed instructions about the post- surgery exercises and post-operative care.
We recommend bringing a pillow that she can use as a cushion between the seat belt and her chest wall for the drive home..
The side effects from chemotherapy are plentiful, inconsistent and often unexpected.
Depending on the chemotherapy regimen, you can anticipate that your loved one will feel ill and may potentially lose her appetite. This may last 3 - 5 days after each treatment. It is important that she stays hydrated to help flush the drugs from her system. Smoothies, fresh fruit, and soups are generally tolerated well. What she can tolerate may also change from treatment to treatment. Sometimes it may not matter if the foods are 100% healthy, as long as she is able to eat something.
Steroids are often prescribed during treatment and may disrupt her sleep. If you notice that she is consistently unable to get good rest, encourage her to share that information with her oncologist as there are some medications available that can provide temporary relief from insomnia.
Have a hospital bag packed at all times in case of fever or if she has a reaction to the chemotherapy drugs.
After the physical treatments have ended she may be overwhelmed with emotions as she processes the trauma of her diagnosis and treatment.
Be prepared that these complex emotions will likely surface once the regular schedule of treatment concludes. During treatment she will be so focused on getting through the immediate challenges of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Be mindful that just because the treatment is over, her cancer experience is not. While she may be anxious to have some normalcy back in her life, give her time and space to process the experience and accept her new normal. Be supportive if her priorities in life have changed and allow her the time she needs to recover physically, mentally, and emotionally.
At this stage in the journey it may be beneficial for you and your loved one’s to speak with a therapist or social worker to help you process the trauma caused by cancer.
To avoid caregiver fatigue and burnout, here is a list of acts of service your friends and family can assist with when they inevitably ask how they can help:
Jen writes about the significance of her vows in the blog post "In Sickness and In Health".