After cancer treatment, survivors and their caregivers travel new terrain without benefit of direction from routine oncology visits.
Many of the familiar stressors stick around, like financial pressure or physical symptoms, causing them to wonder: Will we ever get there?
The good news is: Yes, they will. Family caregivers of survivors who participated in a large national survey reported that they resumed a healthy quality of life two years after diagnosis. In the American Cancer Society’s Quality of Life Survey for Caregivers, which tracked the experiences of more than 1,500 caregivers, many said they returned to “normal levels” of psychological well-being, mental health and physical health. The results were somewhat less encouraging among low-income and older caregivers, however.
At the same two-year mark, some caregivers of survivors reported heightened levels of spirituality. Those findings parallel an earlier Quality of Life survey, also funded by the ACS, in which caregivers who adapted better psychologically were the ones who reported they “came to accept what happened.” The National Cancer Institute interprets this data to suggest that high levels of spirituality “may provide a stress-buffering effect for caregivers.”
It sounds simple—making peace with uncertainty—but it’s hard for caregivers to stop feeling responsible for a patient’s outcome, says Sarah Reed, a licensed clinical social worker at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Reed urges caregivers to drop that burden posttreatment. The cancer may or may not return, but it’s not up to them, she tells caregivers. “We don’t have a crystal ball.”
Colleen Wright, a school teacher whose husband is a three-year survivor of throat cancer, subscribes to that philosophy, heeding her mother’s advice to “let go of what you can’t control.”
“I don’t worry about what might happen,” Wright says. “I sleep really, really well.”