When a loved one has cancer, healthy family members often take on the strenuous role of caregiver. As a result, roles that had previously defined your relationship to a family member who now has cancer may shift. This can be especially challenging in the context of a partner relationship, where equal partners suddenly find themselves in an unequal patient-caregiver relationship. Older children who become caregivers for their parents may experience an even greater shift or complete role reversal, where the parent upon whom they have relied for support their entire lives is suddenly no longer available to them and instead requires their support.
By setting clear caregiver-patient boundaries and identifying ways in which each individual can fulfill some of his/her traditional relationship roles, even while undergoing cancer treatment, families can bolster healthy functioning. It may be helpful for caregivers and their loved ones to distinguish between tasks or responsibilities that the patient can continue to complete/maintain him or herself and those that genuinely require the caregiver. This will help facilitate healthy boundaries, where caregivers’ sympathies and good will do not breed over-dependence on the caregiver.
Questions that can help guide such decisions include: “Do I need to do this for my loved one or can she do this for herself? Is this a priority? How do I feel about doing this? Am I doing this out of guilt or necessity? Am I the only one capable of helping my loved one?”
Find ways to validate and empower the cancer patient’s role as spouse, parent, sibling, etc. This will allow for a renewed sense of partnership in what may feel like an unbalanced relationship, as well as for some of the caregivers’ needs to be met. For example, if your spouse typically took care of the bills, and still has the capacity and energy to write the checks, ask him/her to do so. If your spouse was the one who did the grocery shopping, ask him/her to do the coupon cutting. If your parent was the one you turned to for advice regarding a challenging professional or relationship situation, continue to ask for their advice.
Taking on the role of caregiver does not automatically transform one into a superhuman. As evidenced by the team of professionals that treat cancer patients, (oncologists, radiologists, nurses, social workers, dieticians, etc.), caregiving is not a one-person job. Caregivers do not need to and cannot do it all themselves. Identifying tasks that others (friends, extended family members, colleagues, neighbors, volunteers) can take on to relieve the caregiver is also important.
Several resources exist to help facilitate delegation of such tasks. Two examples include www.lotsahelpinghands.com and www.carepages/inova.org. These web-based resources allow you to create a group calendar that is designed to help organize helpers engaged in an array of tasks (meals, yard work, errands, transportation, etc) and offer caregivers an easy way to provide updates on the family member’s health status, their availability and energy level for visitors, and more.
Caregiver role strain can result in resentment, anger, or depression. It can also lead an individual with cancer to feel guilty, a burden, or as if they are preventing their caregiver from living a full life and enjoying the things they love to do. Life with Cancer offers a Caregivers Support Group, and individual counseling to help caregivers navigate role changes.
By Molly McKenna, Graduate Counseling Intern