The MCA recently spoke to Kate Fitzpatrick, who lives in Connecticut with her husband, a lung cancer survivor, and their daughter, Kelly Rose, who was born exactly one year after her father completed chemotherapy. Below, Kate shares tips from a caregiver’s perspective on how to take care of yourself as you care for a cancer patient.
I took care of my husband when he went through surgery and chemotherapy for cancer at age 27 (we had been married less than two years); he has now been in remission for three years, thank God. Not only is cancer extremely difficult on a patient, but cancer can have a great effect on a patient’s loved ones. As a caregiver, you need to take time to care for yourself so you can take great care of the patient. My recommendations are as follows:
1. Create Your Own Support Network of People
Surround yourself with people who can help you through this tough time and focus on your individual needs instead of the patient's. The patient has a whole team of people devoted to his/her care and you need the same. This can take whatever form you find helpful. I was lucky enough to know a lot of nurses and doctors through my work as well as having family members who work in the medical field, so I relied on them to translate some of the very scientific information we were getting from the doctors.
I also spoke to a counselor at CancerCare over the phone and she really helped me through. At the time when I was a caregiver, I was in my late 20s and didn't know anyone who'd dealt with cancer so young; I really leaned on a counselor to validate my fears. You have to find people who will simply listen and let you talk/cry/rant instead of trying to make it better for everyone else all the time.
2. Accept Help From Family & Friends
Ask your family and friends to offer specific suggestions and ways to help you, so that you don't have to be thinking up specific things they can help you with. Of course I wanted to lean on people for support and so many people wanted to help, but it was just extra mental energy to think of things people could help with that wouldn't be imposing.
For example, when friends want to help, you can ask them to check in with you regularly about a specific area where you might need help, such as bringing you healthy food, cleaning the house, or just taking you out for coffee. It's hard to be spontaneous as a caregiver, but that is a great gift that a friend of a caregiver can provide - be sure the patient is taken care of and then "kidnap" the caregiver for a lunch at a favorite restaurant, a movie, a shopping trip, or anything that could take his/her mind off the situation for an hour or two.
3. Nurture Your Spiritual Life
Many people turn to their religion in hard times, like during a cancer diagnosis or treatment. As a caregiver, taking the time to go to church, meditate, or pray with a friend is important as well.
4. Nurture Your Physical Self
Take the time for healthy food, lots of water, fresh air and walks around the block if you can't get to the gym. It's amazing how much this can help and how easily you can forget to do these things when you're consumed with taking care of someone. If you're living on hospital cafeteria food and takeout, try to minimize the sugar and fat and focus more on veggies and protein. I lived on Italian food for weeks during my husband's treatment and this is something I would improve upon if I could.
5. Don’t Forget About You
Remember the metaphor of the oxygen mask on the airplane - you have to take of yourself before you can take care of anyone else! I'm a visual person and I like the image of the water pitcher as well-- if you pour out all the water, you'll have nothing left to give. You have to keep refilling your own pitcher before you can fill others'.
6. When You're Ready, Give Back
Even before my husband's diagnosis, I had been a frequent participant in charity walks and runs. After his diagnosis, I saw these events with new eyes and was comforted and inspired by the huge community of people who had been through similar situations and wanted to make a difference. I find it rewarding to talk to patients about my experience; hopefully it helps them to know people like us who have survived and are thriving. This summer, my husband rode in a 50-mile LiveStrong ride, which was amazing for several reasons - he had half a lung removed in surgery after his diagnosis so it was important for him to know he could still compete in sports like this. Plus, he raised almost $8,000 for cancer families like ours!
7. Don't Ever Lose Hope
We've always dreamed of having kids, so when my husband's oncologists said we might not be able to after treatment, we were blindsided. But exactly one year after he completed treatment, I gave birth to our beautiful baby girl, Kelly Rose.
Remember that the oncologists' primary concern is to save a patient's life, so turn to organizations like Fertile Hope for more information.
After spending the first years of her career developing a diverse set of public relations and editorial skills in magazine publishing, Kate was motivated to tap her passion for health and wellness to transition into the non-profit world. She currently serves as Special Projects Manager and Patient Services Representative to the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer & AIDS Research, where she has worked for several years and has become an specialist in non-profit communications.
Kate also runs her own boutique consulting firm, KKDF & Co Consulting. She has managed comprehensive communications projects for the Personalized Living: Using the Blood Type Diets cookbook series and the Wilton Family YMCA; she has also consulted on social media strategy for a variety of clients such as Mom Gets a Life; Bernard's Restaurant, Sarah's Wine Bar, and Sarah Bouissou's Catering; Jennifer Roy Collection; All Destinations Travel and Elevation Spinning & Personal Training.