Any illness is not something a person wants to go through alone. For cancer, this could be said to be true in the extreme. Not only can some diagnoses be frightening, but the prescribed cures can also sometimes be grueling, with the support needed to deal with chemotherapy, radiation and the like.
While the patient is sometimes lucky to have someone accompany them to treatments and help them through the side effects of treatment, the caregiver's needs are often ignored throughout the process. When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma and began treatment in 2012, my wife Laura was with me for each step of the process. She was at each appointment and was at the majority of day-long chemotherapy sessions. Especially in the beginning of the journey, I was not physically or emotionally able to address her fears and anxieties. As a basically quiet person, I withdrew into myself and did not talk much about it with Laura. My reasoning was twofold, first, it was how I best dealt with the situation. I tried to keep my life on an even keel and not discuss the situation ad nauseum. I'm not saying that is the way to handle things. It just helped me. Secondly, I thought I was being brave and protecting her. I did not want her to know how badly I felt, and for some reason, I thought this was in her best interest.
After my successful treatments had ended, Laura told me this was the loneliest time of her life. She said she cried many tears alone worrying about me and feeling helpless. Years later, I still regret shutting her out and not letting her know how I felt. As I looked back, I realized what she was facing. At the most crucial time in her life, the person she counted on to be supportive was the one that was sick. Friends and family members were great to us, but most of the energy was obviously focused on me as the patient. How Laura was able to shoulder these burdens virtually on her own remains a mystery.
Why is it important to make sure the caregiver is supported? The answer is really very simple. Outside of the physicians giving the treatments, no person had a bigger impact on my recovery than Laura. What if Laura had not been able to fight through the loneliness? Where would I have been? The patient's wife/husband/partner needs the support of family and friends so they can be at their best as a caregiver. One simple way for people to help the caregiver is to give them the gift of time. Offer to come by and spend time with the patient. Let the caregiver spend the day out of the house doing something for themselves. Another way to help the caregiver is to just remain a friend. Call them or see them often. Obviously ask about their sick loved one, but make the point of the conversation about them. Ask how they are and let them know you are interested in them as a person. In turn, the patient also needs to keep these ideas in mind too. Whenever possible, patients need to help the caregiver emotionally. That little bit of effort could help the caregiver provide more help to you.
Also, thank your caregiver for the job they are doing with this situation. Even though they would do the job without thanks, everyone's psyche needs a boost and feeling appreciated is a major way to accomplish this. Moreover, ask them about what they have going on. If they are working, ask them about their job. Inquire about their family and friends. These simple conversations can help them feel connected to the world and stay off the island many caregivers feel they are on. Finally, caregivers need to learn to take care of themselves. Find little things that will make them happy. Watching their favorite movie, reading a great book or taking a walk on their favorite trail can help them remain in a positive mindset during this difficult time. They have to remember that while they have an important task in giving their patient top-notch care, there are two people in this relationship. It is important to take care of both of them.
No one has a blueprint on how to handle this journey. Each patient and caregiver have to figure out what path works for them. However, for the patient to get the best care possible, every effort needs to be made to support the person who will be providing this care.