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Caregiving and Cancer

Caregiving is more often than not an unexpected event. Many caregivers have a daily routine caring for a loved one. Some caregivers continue working; some stay at home to caregive. Most important is the caregiver’s ability for self-care including attending to healthcare and medical needs. Care-receiving is also an unexpected and unwelcome event; who wants to admit that he or she needs care?

Caregiving for a loved one is stressful and the physical and emotional effects longstanding. Caregivers experience anxiety, depression, declines in health, and a number of other conditions as the result of the role of caregiving. If you find the effects of caregiving difficult to believe the example I share is Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana. Christopher was injured in a horseback riding accident and was cared for by his devoted wife and family for many years. After Christopher passed in October 2004, his wife, Dana, was diagnosed with lung cancer the following August—never having smoked a cigarette. Dana passed away in March of 2006.

What happens to caregivers who already have chronic diseases including a prior diagnosis of cancer? Should individuals already diagnosed with a chronic disease be more cautious about their health when caring for another person?

I recently consulted with a wife who had knee replacement surgery only to learn at the time of surgery that her breast cancer returned; the only treatment available was palliative chemotherapy. The wife came to me because she was the caregiver for her husband diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and she wanted to make a long term plan for his care.

After receiving the news that her cancer had returned the plan changed from being her husband’s long-term caregiver to planning for her husband’s care without her in his life and making plans for her own care. It was evident that the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease was taking its toll on my client in addition to the emotional stress of learning about a terminal diagnosis of cancer with a defined time limit. For this couple the experience of being diagnosed with cancer and the role of caregiving and care-receiving posed similar but sometimes opposite experiences.

The many effects of caregiving—while often not immediately life threatening—have much in common with the effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Individuals with cancer experience declines in health, episodes of anxiety, fatigue, loss of appetite and body changes, sleep problems, confusion and feelings of overwhelm, anger, and sadness.

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