Cancer not only affects the cancer patients themselves, but also impacts their homes, families and relationships. Tens of thousands of women are diagnosed with cancer each year, causing the men in their lives to assume the role of caregiver.
I first met Pam Pinney when she came to Hope4Cancer as a breast cancer patient to continue her alternative cancer treatments, and she recently shared the details of her journey with The Truth About Cancer filmmakers. Her husband, Harry Pinney, served as her companion and caregiver through her healing process from cancer. For him, the caregiver role came pretty naturally.
“I never consciously took on the role of caregiver,” he said. “It was just an extension of being a partner.”
Like Pinney, many men are happy to provide this type of support, but some don’t always know how. While there are no hard and fast rules for caregiving, here are seven basic guidelines that may help you care for your loved one.
1. Maintain Good Communication
Communication involves both talking and listening, but if you’re like many men, you may not be naturally fond of either. However, openly sharing your feelings – both good and bad – about the entire cancer experience will make your loved one feel like the two of you are a team.
“Communication is crucial,” Pinney said. “You have to be able to talk about what’s going on with the disease and each other. We continually pitch ideas to each other, and when something rings true for both of us, we try it.”
Listening is just as important. In an article for CancerConnect, Delisa Rapp, an oncology social worker at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute in Boise, Idaho, says,
“Listening can be one of the most important things you do. Don’t try to ‘fix it.’ The more you try, the more frustrated you will get, and then it’s difficult to support anyone.”
Author John W. Anderson, in an article for WebMD, also stresses the importance of listening.
“Hear what her needs and wants are, and ask how you can help. Do not force your agenda on her. React, don’t act.”
2. Support Her Decisions
During the course of your cancer communications, you’ll be tasked with making multiple decisions. Your job is to help your loved one make those decisions and then to staunchly support them. During the decision-making process, help her gather information so her decisions can be informed.
“During this time it can be difficult to concentrate and exhausting to make decisions. Be there to gather information, weigh the pros and cons, be a sounding board, and help formulate questions.”
Not only is it important to tackle decisions as they pop up, it’s also important to decide things in advance of various events.
“You have to talk about what you would do in certain situations,” Pinney said. “We had decided we would not go to the hospital except for an emergency, and since we had talked about this beforehand, I was able to stick with the decision to try things at home first.”
He also stressed the importance of supporting his wife’s lifestyle decisions. She wanted to start eating healthier, which seemed too expensive to him at first. However, because it was important to her, he changed his mindset. He started looking at food as either medicine or poison, and quickly got on board with a healthier diet.
3. Stay Organized
While your loved one is dealing with cancer, she’ll have doctor appointments, financial paperwork, and much more to manage. Needless to say, I know life can get a little chaotic, and a little organization can go a long way. I suggest helping her out by keeping a calendar of her appointments and perhaps taking notes during the appointments themselves. Start a filing system for things like medical research and insurance paperwork, and create an email list serve to keep family and friends up to date, removing that burden from her.
4. Help With Her To-Do List
Helping out around the house is a big way to help relieve your loved one of a large amount of stress. The thought of leaving daily chores undone is a huge stressor for many women, so shouldering the household responsibilities she normally handles without her having to think about them can positively impact her overall outlook. Pinney said this is a common topic for him and Pam:
“We talk about what needs to be done and what she is able to do,” he said. “For example, Pam really likes to do all the laundry, but we agreed that when it gets backed up to a certain point that I will take over. The same is true for cooking and other household chores. When she is unable to do them, we improvise. It is important to realize that some things may not get done, and it’s not the end of the world.”
If you’re not able to take on any more duties yourself, I suggest enlisting the help of family members and friends. Several community organizations are also available to pick up slack in certain areas, so explore the available options in your area.
5. Nurture Her Self-Esteem
In addition to affecting daily life, cancer can have a huge impact on self-esteem. Your loved one is likely nervous about how cancer might affect her body, her sexuality, and your reaction to both. To help her focus on healing instead of self-doubt, reassure her several times throughout the process that you think she’s beautiful no matter what.
An article in CancerCare suggests helping her find ways to look and feel her best. Encourage her to research all the different options for coping with physical changes until she finds what works for her, and keep an open dialogue about her comfort level with intimacy. Even simple acts of hugging and holding hands can help the two of you stay physically connected. Lastly, remember to just be there for her.
6. Take Time for Yourself
Beyond investing in your partner’s well-being, you need to invest in yourself as well in order to be the best possible caregiver. This involves staying active, eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and taking a little “me time.” In the WebMD article, Anderson adds,
“Get away from Cancerland. Whether golfing or having beer with a friend, you need a reprieve. You can’t be on all the time. You also need to be honest about what you are feeling. Be open and talk to a friend or family member. Guys tend to hold it in and say, ‘I’m OK or I am doing fine,’ but they are torn up inside and have nowhere to go. When I needed help, I turned to my guy friends so I could download what I was going through.”
Caregivers also tend to experience feelings of loneliness, helplessness, anger and even depression. In fact, many caregivers’ depression levels are almost the same as the patients’ levels. But the caregivers – especially the men – don’t realize that they, too, need support. If some of your emotions are too difficult to deal with on your own, join a support group or speak with a professional counselor.
The bottom line: If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of your partner.
7. Continue to be a Husband, Too
Lastly, as important as your duties as a caregiver are, your role as a spouse or partner remain equally important. Rapp added,
“There is a fine line between spouse and caregiver. Too often we focus only on being a caregiver. It’s important to be a little bit of both. Your partner may need someone to care for them, but they also need the safety of the relationship that existed prior to diagnosis.”
Being a caregiver is a tough job, but with a little help and reassurance, it’s nothing you can’t handle.
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