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  • Help Caring for a Loved One with Cancer

    Promising breakthroughs have turned cancer from a likely death sentence into an illness that often can be controlled or cured; today cancer comes with a 69 percent five-year survival rate (up from 49 percent in 1975). But it can still be a frightening diagnosis for the patient and the people who love them.

     

  • Facing the Problem

    You and your loved one may find yourself suddenly trying to decode new terminology, process the diagnosis and evaluate how it may change your lives. Whom do you tell and how much do you tell them? It can feel overwhelming, but there are a few things that help, including learning as much as you can about the illness, having a good connection with your doctors and asking for assistance and answers when you need them.  

    Quick Tips:

    • Educate yourself. Reliable online sources for the latest research and practical information on cancer include the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society. Some cancer centers have a kind of mentoring program that matches new patients with someone who had the same diagnosis and can answer questions.
    • Assess the medical team. Are you and your loved one comfortable with your physician? If not — if the doctor appears brusque or disrespectful, or you just aren’t communicating well — ask for another provider. The last thing you need is a doctor who adds to your anxiety.
    • Discuss how to share the diagnosis. Sometimes the patient and caregiver have different ideas about handling the news: One may want to tell everyone in their address book; the other may need time to process it quietly. Be sure you’re on the same page. 
    • Look for ways to pay. If you’re helping your loved one manage finances (or you share them) determine what health insurance covers. Investigate financial assistance programs by contacting CancerCare.org.

    Resources

    • Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Cancer occurs more often in older adults
    • Finding out that you or a loved one has cancer can be overwhelming
    • Learn about cancer treatment options and get help making treatment decisions with these videos, interactive tools, worksheets, and other resources
    • Only you can decide when to tell your friends and family you have cancer
    • Dealing with financial and insurance issues
    • Good, reliable caregiver support is crucial to the physical and emotional well-being of people with cancer
  • Considering Treatment Options

    Cancer treatments can be tough, sometimes causing a range of unpleasant or painful side effects. It’s important to stay informed, know what to expect and be a strong advocate for your loved one. If you’ve learned all you can and are still uncomfortable with the proposed care, consider getting a second opinion and/or investigating alternatives.

    Quick Tips:

    • Prep for appointments. Formulate questions for the doctor with your loved one and bring them to the appointment. It’s hard to remember everything discussed so take notes during the visit, then sit down together afterward and write down thoughts and comments while the conversation is still fresh in your minds.
    • Manage medications. Caregivers often help keep track of their loved one’s medications — sometimes dozens a day, each with its own protocol. If you need reminders, set an alarm timed for each dose.
    • Understand side effects. Chemotherapy and radiation can have debilitating side effects that you’ll want explained. Ask doctors what to expect, how to manage the side effects and when to call for medical help. And find out about palliative care, which is focused on alleviating pain and discomfort.
    • Seek alternative treatments. For less-mainstream options, consult reputable sources such as the National Association for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes for Health. Your loved one might also consider being part of a drug trial; all current trials are listed at ClinicalTrials.gov. 

    Resources

    • Make the most of your doctor visits, prepare beforehand: take the time to make lists, check your refill needs and other tips
    • It's crucial to stay organized when you're juggling multiple medications for either yourself or a loved one
    • What you need to know about the most common types of cancer treatment
    • Talk to your doctor about any method you are using or thinking about trying
    • 6 methods used as part of medical treatments for cancer and heart disease
    • Knowing all you can about clinical trials can help you feel better when deciding whether or not to take part in one
  • Enlisting support

    You simply can’t do it all; pushing yourself to the limit will jeopardize your own mental and physical health. It’s important to build a team of people who can help, and to communicate your needs clearly. Don’t forget the little things — a neighbor who can mow your grass or a friend who will pick up a prescription. These add up to more time for you to focus on your loved one and yourself. (And try not to feel guilty about the latter.)

    Quick Tips:

    • Ask for help. There are plenty of people in your life who may be glad to lend a hand if you simply ask. Consider paying for relatively small services that will take a big load off, such as a weekly housecleaner, lawn care or grocery delivery.
    • Stay connected. My Cancer Circle is a free, private online community where you and your loved one can exchange information with friends and family members. Other good communication tools include Lotsa Helping Hands and caringbridge.org.
    • Find emotional support As a caregiver, you may be experiencing grief, fear, resentment and anger. Seek help from a mental health professional or contact CancerCare at 800-813-4673 for free online, phone and in-person support groups led by social workers. 

    Resources

    • AARP developed these resources guides with you – the caregiver – in mind as a starting point to help you find the services and support you need throughout your caregiving journey
    • Use this tool to weigh your options and find the right care for your loved one
    • AARP’s online community allows caregivers to share stories and advice
    • The CSN discussion boards and chatrooms are excellent ways to meet your CSN "neighbors"
    • The latest in caregiving advocacy state by state
  • Handling Common Conflicts

    A cancer diagnosis can take a toll on families and stir up all kinds of emotions. It’s hard to see someone you love in pain or scared, especially when you’re just as frightened. It can be just as difficult getting used to what may be a new way of interacting with and perceiving them. The key, as with so many conflicts, is communicating well and often, avoiding power struggles, and keeping your loved one’s best interest in the foreground.

    Quick Tips:

    • Loss of intimacy. Someone undergoing cancer treatments might be physically unable to have sex, or have no sex drive. If you are their partner, it’s important for you to communicate what your needs are and listen to theirs. You may need to redefine what it means for you to be intimate as a couple.
    • Disagreement over treatments. Sometimes a caregiver is upset when their loved one refuses chemotherapy or other treatments that might prolong their life. A nurse or social worker can often help mediate and offer you both a reality check on the treatment’s likely outcome. But ultimately it’s the patient’s decision. 
    • Uncertainty about your role. Unless very ill, a cancer patient is usually able to make their own decisions, and can dictate how involved they want you to be. Ask how you can be most helpful; try not to feel hurt if that means backing off for a while.
    • Workload disputes. One family member may feel resentment about shouldering most of the caregiving — or may be reluctant to relinquish control, causing resentment among those left out. It’s useful to have an initial planning meeting for distributing tasks, and to communicate clearly and often.  

    Resources

    • There are people who choose not to get any cancer treatment. This can be very hard for family and friends who may not agree with this choice
    • When planning for your future medical care, prepare your advance directives to be sure your loved ones make health choices according to your wishes
    • For adult children, sharing the workload and carrying out the plan come with challenges
    • Try to be clearheaded, compassionate and assertive in the face of frustration when being a caregiver and having to interact with others
    • Erectile dysfunction is not inevitable. Learn how any man who develops it can still enjoy great sex — including deeply satisfying orgasms
  • Addressing End-of-Life Issues

    Is there a subject we enjoy talking about less? As unappealing as it is, it’s useful to discuss end-of-life issues with your loved one while they are still relatively well. It’s a way for you both to feel prepared — allowing your loved one to determine how they want their final years to unfold and ensuring that you’ll know their wishes when you’re one day responsible for carrying them out. 

    Quick Tips:

    • Start the Conversation. There are many resources to help you broach tough topics, including The Conversation Project and a game called My Gift of Grace, in which players answer questions about living and dying well. 
    • Help with legal issues. Find out if your loved one has a will. If they don’t have a durable power of attorney for health care and financial decisions, ask whether they would like you or someone else they unequivocally trust to take on that role. (Ideally these things are handled well in advance — but they often aren’t.)    
    • Consider hospice care. Hospice is focused on comfort and pain relief at the end of life, usually when the prognosis is six months or less. It can be an invaluable service, providing emotional and spiritual support to the patient and their family and friends during a very difficult time.   

    Resources

    • Is hospice care the right option for you or a loved one?
    • Read the transcript of the End of Life Chat With Jennie Chin Hansen, CEO of the American Geriatrics Society
    • When planning for your future medical care, prepare your advance directives to be sure your loved ones make health choices according to your wishes
    • Understanding what to expect both physically and emotionally during these last few months might help you live fully and get the most out of this last phase of your life
    • Losing a loved one to cancer can be a painful and difficult time
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