When someone close to you gets cancer it touches your life as much as theirs – sometimes more – because even if the diagnosis isn’t your own, you’re still on board your own emotional roller-coaster.
“You feel helpless and uncertain about the next steps. Seeing someone who is close to you suffer and take strain is hard and can be traumatic,” says Linda Greeff, Social Work Services Manager at GVI Oncology. “Remember that you are a part of their support structure and coping mechanism. They may not always show it or say it, but you can bet they need and appreciate what you do,” Linda adds.
Linda says the cancer journey can be especially tough at the outset. “I’ve seen many cases where the diagnosis is overwhelming. But reach out and ask about professional help; you don’t have to do it alone. There are so many of us who stand ready to help – oncology social workers, oncology nursing sisters, doctors, psychologists – multidisciplinary teams that support carers and patients alike. Make use of these resources. It will empower you and the person you’re caring for. You’re all doing it together. It’s important to focus on that.”
Linda has accompanied many patients and carers on their cancer journeys. She’s learnt that being practical is essential. Her advice includes:
- Go along to doctors’ appointments. Two pairs of ears are better than one.
- Prepare a list of questions for the doctor beforehand, to make the most of each appointment. Afterwards, recap together over a cup of tea.
- Simple things make a world of difference, like sitting with someone while they have treatment.
- Let others help you with food preparation, household chores, picking up or dropping off kids, feeding pets or doing grocery shopping. Work out a schedule that involves as many people as you can. They all help to prop up your support network.
All good and well to be practical, but what about the carer’s emotional and mental wellbeing?
Grace, who asked that we not use her real name, has been a chemo sister at a private oncology practice for 10 years, but two years ago she had to stop working because of burnout. She says, “This is not uncommon in oncology because the work we do is not easy.
During the day I’d treat a young man with thyroid cancer who’s the same age as my own son, then in the evenings I had to go home. That’s hard. How do you just leave your work behind? To be a carer, especially a good one, you need armfuls of empathy and it’s that same empathy that can trip you up emotionally.”
Linda agrees that it’s tough on carers. She says carers can do themselves and their patients a big favour by creating a safe place for sharing and open communication around the hard issues. “You must make space for your own emotions. Please don’t be strong!
By pretending you are, you’re not being authentic and the patient will sense that. Rather cry together. Tears release emotions, help healing and free your body and immune system of tension. Afterwards you wipe those tears and set small, achievable goals. That’s how you keep going forward.”
Grace agrees, saying, “Yes, you cry with your patient if a test result isn’t what they’d hoped for. But you also learn to laugh with them at the strangest things. Including false teeth popping out mid-sentence because they’ve lost so much weight. You simply pick those teeth up, rinse them, put them back in and on you go – together.”
Grace came back from her burnout and is working with cancer patients again. How does she do it? “I’ve learnt to set boundaries for myself. At work I take on a more manageable load and I no longer try to do everything myself. At home I make a point of forcing myself to go to Pilates once a week and on other days I take the dog for a walk. I eat well. I sleep enough. I make sure I do the basics.”
She’s also had to be firm with herself on mental and emotional boundaries. “I had to learn to let go of trying to take responsibility for everybody else. I realised that I wasn’t taking responsibility for myself and in the end that just wasn’t worth it. For me it was a big mindshift and one that I have to keep making every day.”
Of course! It’s a fallacy that only women can do it well. Carers can come from all walks of life, all cultures, all ages and both genders. Male carers send a message that men can care for others and that it’s a sign of strength instead of weakness to be helpful, compassionate and empathetic.
It makes sense for men to be strong, positive role models because it breaks down troublesome stereotypes that put pressure on boys to behave as tough guys who don’t cry.
Compassionate male carers contribute to the development of others and by living these values they benefit our whole society. Men and women make different contributions just as people from various cultures all have something unique and worthwhile to give.