Whole Story

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Caring for Caregivers

Continuing in our Breast Cancer Awareness Month series, let’s talk about caregivers. There aren’t many jobs out there that are thrust on you without warning! You don’t need a resume in order to be hired, no special skills are required and you’ve got the job for as long as it takes. Vacations? Days off? A simple 9 to 5? Forget it. Being a caregiver is a tough job. While it’s common for caregivers to feel inadequate as well as under-appreciated, they are the unsung heroes of millions of breast cancer survivors and their families. When I went through breast cancer, my husband, James, was my rock. While he didn’t always known what to do, just the fact that he was present, loving and by my side, made it easier for me to make it through treatment and for us to resume our lives when it was over. Like James, many breast cancer caregivers are the intangible support that boosts their loved one’s immune system, gives her hope and helps her make it from one day to the next. In some cases, you may literally make the difference between life and death. Your towering legacy of strength, whether you feel strong or not, will be a role model your children will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Statistics say that over 20% of husbands leave their wives after they’re diagnosed with breast cancer. I was lucky. From the beginning, James told me, in no uncertain terms, that we were in this together; that he would always be there for me no matter what. A friend of mine was not as fortunate. The day after her diagnosis, her husband left her. Not only did he abandon her, he left their 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter to become their mother’s primary caregivers. What kind of man does that? What kind of message is he sending his children? Another breast cancer husband I know was so unsympathetic during his wife’s chemotherapy he actually told her to take an aspirin and “snap out of it.” Each separate thing a caregiver does may not seem like much. It’s the combined and repeated jobs of chauffeur, grocery shopper, cook, maid, childcare provider, tutor and morale supporter—for as long as needed—with love, compassion, positive attitude and humor and all probably on top of a full-time job that is the hard part. Being a caregiver is a lot to ask, but your loved one won’t have the energy to do the usual things for herself because she’ll be using everything she has to fight for her life. Help her. Rescue her with all the love and consideration you would want if you were in her place. You need to help her stay in the here and now, and be determined to make it through one step at a time, one procedure at a time. In addition to being a breast cancer survivor, I was also caregiver to my late husband who died of cancer. I know how hard it is to be a caregiver. Take time for yourself. Seek counseling and support groups. Do not hesitate to ask friends and family for help with meals, childcare and running errands. They want to help you — they just need you to tell them how. The BreastCancerSisterhood.com is a great online survivorship resource for every member of the breast cancer family. On it are videos of other breast cancer caregivers as well as advice from one of the top cancer counselors in the country. You’ll also find short videos and BRENDA’S BLOG that explains the side effects of chemo and radiation and offers suggestions about everything from meal planning to sex and/or lack of sex. There’s also a great book for breast cancer caregivers called Husbands & Heroes, by Brenda Ray Coffee. Yes, that’s me, and I kept it deliberately short, highlighting only the key things you need to know along with an insight into what your wife is experiencing from someone who’s been there. Remember, you can do this. You can be the rock who helps your wife/life partner and family through this crisis with love, support and optimism. I wish you, and your family, health and all good things you summon into your life. Brenda Ray Coffee, founder and CEO of the Survivorship Media Network, LLC, is an experienced entrepreneur, journalist/filmmaker, former board member and managing consultant to a publicly held company and breast cancer survivor.

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Jill Foye says …

Thank you for taking time to recognize how difficult the role of caretaker is. There are countless unsung heroes out there and they're making such an incredible impact in the lives of those they care for. This is a wonderful recognition of their selfless acts of love and service!

Lisa says …

What an important posting. I will be sharing with those I know who are going through this grueling process. Your husband is truly a role model in the caretaker dept. But even if others can take just part of your advice, it will make a real difference for all in the cancer family. You are indeed wise & thank you for sharing these helpful insights!

Lynne Rhea says …

Having breast cancer was a blessing in some ways. I was overwhelmed by the love and support in my life. My husband and family and friends were amazing. It is something you know but at a time like this, you are amazed at how truely blessed you are to have this much love. I never would have come out on this side of the disease without all the love and support I had.

BWB says …

She is a lucky woman. New diagnosis and treatment underway. I had no idea how immature and selfish my husband was until now. He is angry that I have asked him repeatedly to turn tv, computer , iPod, etc off late at night so I can rest. A simple request. Working full time , have two small children. Feel so sad and alone. Never expected his anger and defensiveness. Keeping a stiff upper lip but thought I could lean on him. Cancer of the marriage is more painful than any surgery or treatment I have had to date.

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