Caregivers With Cancer: Practical Planning

Caregiving and cancer can become long-term companions. Caregivers with cancer are faced with practical planning and considerations of who will care for their loved ones when they are gone.

Cancer is not always immediately life-threatening but benefits from practical planning. So whether you are a caregiver or a person who needs care, paying attention to your health and stress levels is essential for your well-being especially if you are diagnosed with a chronic disease like cancer.

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 a 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.

Caregivers With Cancer

What happens to caregivers who already have chronic diseases including a 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.

The Toll of Caregiver Stress

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, feelings of overwhelm, anger, and sadness.

Practical Discussions

My discussion with my client revolved around practical considerations for bill paying and identifying a companion for her husband’s safety at home. As well as a caregiver to provide general support on days she would not be feeling well after chemotherapy treatments.

As a caregiver with cancer, practical discussions were held about his and her end-of-life care. Appointing a legally responsible party to serve as medical and financial power of attorney and cremation plans. How to discuss her advancing condition with a husband diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease who likely would not understand.

The option of receiving in-home care versus moving to a care community where her husband might adjust and make new acquaintances that would support him after her death was a timely and important subject. At least she would be comforted to know where her husband would live and who would provide for his care after her passing.

When Both Individuals Need Care

Caregiving is challenging when one person requires care. However, when both spouses or a parent and adult child caregiver require care and the death of one person is imminent the challenges seem to rapidly multiply.

Some families are unable to have these all-important discussions and are at a loss to make plans. This emotional distress results in overwhelm which makes planning difficult.

Individuals in these situations feel immobilized. Children may or may not be supportive or available depending on their proximity to parents and the hustle and busyness of their own lives.

Trading Responsibilities

In the case of this couple, the husband was the one who managed the finances. He was experiencing an inability to organize and comprehend the documents that arrived in the mail.

Agreeing to allow his wife to act in the role of financial manager was damaging to the husband’s self-esteem. He struggled with comprehending that he was no longer able to complete this activity with the ease experienced prior to his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dying Without a Plan

Early in my career, I was appointed a guardian for a woman whose husband was dying from cancer. He failed to make plans for her care, assuming that somehow, someone would care for her after his death.

I was appointed through the court system to be the person who coordinated and made certain that she received care. Fortunately, her husband left sufficient financial resources to support his wife’s care in the lifestyle they were accustomed to prior to his passing.

I imagine that the last several months of his life were overwhelming, attempting to care for his wife with Alzheimer’s and for himself. There were no in-home caregivers at the time that I became involved.

I can only assume that his health and the corresponding pain and symptoms affected his mental ability and physical strength. But being too sick and not seeking help placed his surviving wife at significant risk. Fortunately, in this situation, she received the support and care she needed until her death several years later.

Treating Cancer

For cancer patients, the discussion of managing pain and symptoms through practical methods of medications and alternative treatments like massage, relaxation, and other techniques is important. Many caregivers, not facing a terminal diagnosis, experience anxiety: feelings of being tense or nervous, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, sudden feelings of doom, trouble breathing, and butterflies or nervousness in the stomach.

Individuals with cancer often experience anxiety. Medication, exercise, and self-care are mandatory for both the care recipient and the care receiver. Fatigue is common among individuals diagnosed with cancer as well as caregivers working 24 hours a day 7 days a week to care for loved ones.

Monitoring nutrition, planning daily activities, and identifying others to help is important to managing care situations. Naps are also beneficial but not too much so that one is awake all night.

Caregivers often sleep lightly as they are listening for their loved one to wake from a sound sleep. Individuals with cancer and other medical concerns often have trouble falling asleep, waking up, and are unable to fall back asleep and sleep for short periods of time.

Loss of appetite and changes in the body are common: weight loss, weight gain, constipation, nausea, and vomiting affect individuals diagnosed with cancer. How comforting might it be to have an individual to help with the practicalities of grocery shopping and preparation of meals to support a topsy-turvy stomach?

Caregiver Stress and Exhaustion

Caregivers experience health concerns resulting from stress and exhaustion. Confusion, memory loss, and an inability to focus are also common to caregivers and individuals experiencing cancer.

Being a care recipient and a caregiver has similar stressors of different natures. Care recipients worry about their own health and well-being as well as sometimes feel that their care might be a burden for family members.

Caregivers worry about loved ones and mourn the loss of free time, and the ability to spend time with friends. They dream of living a life without so many complications and daily responsibilities.

Cancer and other chronic and life-threatening diseases change the life of individuals overnight and translate into the role of the care receiver. On the other hand, these life-changing events also result in someone accepting the role of a caregiver.

It is important to understand that the effects of conditions leading to a need for care are similar to the experiences of caregivers caring for a loved one. In both roles, compassion, understanding, patience, and grace support positive relationships and allow individuals to make practical plans for care needs today and in the future.

If you are a caregiver with cancer, consider making practical plans for the present. Also, plan for the unexpected events of the future that include who will care for your loved one in your absence. 

Looking for more resources for caregiving families or yourself, check out Pamela’s complimentary online webinar program about caring for elderly loved ones.

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