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Learning From Your Experiences as a Cancer Caregiver


I learned a lot during my time as a caregiver, and plan to carry that over in my career as an oncology nurse.

I recently attended a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Conference in Colorado that is free and open to the public. Think of it as an all-day workshop where clinicians, families affected by cancer, caregivers and patients alike can network and learn. While there, I sat in on event hosted by Andrea Maikovich-Fong, Ph.D. She was the psycho-social worker at the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute when my sister received her bone marrow transplant and now does great work for Kaiser.

Her session focused on compassion fatigue from the perspective of a nurse. As a nurse, we show empathy and compassion to those we care for and the families that are so often affected by cancer. The goal is to create healthy barriers for ourselves to help us cope with all that we witness and are privy to while continuing to be effective nurses in the often-difficult field of oncology.

As she spoke and gave wonderful advice, I thought about how many of the things she said that I had already been affected by as a caregiver. My underlying question was this: If I had already experienced them as a caregiver, did that make me more susceptible to experience them as a nurse?

While the immediate answer is not necessarily, I wanted to try and dig deeper into the reasons why. As I did so, I found myself reflective back on my thought process during my time as a caregiver.

Because I was so attached to my sister and the care that I gave to her, I forgot the importance of self-care. I forgot that even though she was the one with cancer, I was also greatly impacted by the disease. Just because she was not doing well, that didn't mean that I couldn't do well, or if she was in the hospital, it didn’t mean I needed to be. These are things that I know now, and to some degree that I think I knew then, but chose to ignore out of guilt.

Something that Maikovich-Fong highlighted is how some people identify so closely with their job that when they have a bad day at work, that translates into their life outside of work, too. For me, when it came to caring for my sister, that was absolutely true. I constantly questioned if I had made the wrong choice or if I somehow was the reason for medical failures that occurred during her course of treatment.

Now I can see that those things couldn't be further from the truth. But at the time, I didn't have acceptance that no matter how badly I wanted things to be different than they were; sometimes life just doesn't work that way, especially when dealing with something as complex as cancer.

I am lucky because as I enter into the field of oncology nursing, I am hyper-aware of the downfalls to the job. I have experienced a lot of things that can impact a nurse such as compassion fatigue, burnout, impact of mood, depression and guilt.

While I am not an expert by any means, I do know what the signs and symptoms are, so I know what to pay attention to. I learned so much from caregiving — some good and some bad. I feel that I know myself better than I used to, and that I better know my limits because of all that happened during that time.

As I prepare to work in this field, I will do better. I will put myself and my own needs first, because if I do not take care of myself, I cannot care for another. And I am grateful to have been able to attend the session that I did last Saturday because it provided both a moment of reflection and a reminder of how to be the best nurse that I can be.

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