Taking on a New Role: Caregiving for Someone With Cancer

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Notes on navigating the challenging territory of caregiving.

Becoming a caregiver is one of the most important — and loving — things someone can do. While each individual’s cancer experience is unique, there are some caregiving tips that apply to nearly everyone.

Talk about it. It’s important that caregivers take some time to process what’s happening. They should talk to the patient about the decisions that will need to be made, including second opinions, treatments and where to be treated.

Listen and learn. During appointments, caregivers should take notes or, with the doctor’s permission, record the session. Unless the caregiver has permission from the patient to pursue a dialogue with the doctor, the patient should lead the conversation. Once the treatment plan has been determined by the medical team, the patient and caregiver should get the plan in writing and ask questions about any points that are unclear.

Be realistic about what’s ahead. Treatment can be emotionally and physically taxing, so caregivers shouldn’t minimize what they or their loved ones are going through. Patients react differently to treatments, and the toll can be cumulative. Patients might feel fine at the outset of treatment, but could feel worse before starting to feel better.

Perform simple acts of kindness. Small gestures can make a big difference.

Discuss legal and financial issues. Most patients want to take care of important affairs, such as wills, living wills and medical power of attorney. Caregivers should consider reviewing financial details, such as bank accounts, tax documents, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, CDs and contact information for financial advisers.

Allow patients to express feelings. Caregivers should make sure patients feel safe and comfortable expressing how they feel, and remind them that there’s no need to be upbeat all the time. Caregivers should also be prepared for patient mood swings, which can be a side effect of treatment.

Call a family meeting. Friends and family, regardless of distance, might want to be involved in the patient’s care. Caregivers should organize a family meeting, even if it’s just by phone, to discuss who will do what. It’s important for the patient to be involved, too.