November is National Family Caregivers Month. Providing care for a family member with a serious illness is an exhausting, but ultimately, fulfilling job. This month, show appreciation for the caregivers in your life.
Cancer is unfortunately very common. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 1,658,370 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2015; approximately 589,430 people will die from the disease.
Because of its prevalence, cancer will very likely touch your life — or someone you love — within your lifetime. One of the most difficult situations is having a spouse with a new cancer diagnosis. What are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to help your loved one? What should caregivers know?
The most important thing a couple can do is to act as a team. More than ever, you and your partner need to work together, communicate and help each other out.
If the cancer diagnosis was recent — or even if it wasn’t — sometimes plans need to be put on hold. Not only may your spouse feel too sick to participate in your usual activities, but the two of you will need some time to process what is happening. Spend time alone together to discuss your feelings. Figure out what your new schedule will look like.
After the cancer diagnosis, roles are going to shift within your relationship. Maybe your spouse was responsible for cleaning the house but is now too tired to keep up with the chores. Maybe your spouse was the primary breadwinner and now needs to take time off from work. As your spouse’s caregiver, you must be prepared to take on new challenges and perform roles that were once outside your domain.
Eventually, your spouse will need to tell his or her family, friends and co-workers about the diagnosis. The two of you must work together to find the best way to break the news. Your spouse might feel uncomfortable with the task. You might need to screen phone calls or control the flow of visitors. Alternatively, your spouse might want to deliver the news. The most important thing for the two of you is to communicate and determine the best course of action.
Part of acting like a team means playing like a team. Have fun together. Take some time out of the week to plan special occasions. If your spouse is too tired to go out to a restaurant, stay inside with a home-cooked or takeout meal. Play board games. Some days may be harder than others, so it’s important that you accept any last-minute changes.
As the healthier member of the couple, you might feel obligated to act as the strong one. You’re allowed to be frightened or anxious. You’re also allowed to tell your spouse about these feelings. Chances are both of you feel helpless or afraid. Talking about these feelings together will strengthen your bond as a team.
Despite all the anxiety you might be feeling, understand that you are in a unique position to impact your spouse’s treatment and recovery. By facing this struggle together, you and your spouse can guard each other’s mental health and emerge as stronger people.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer