As a carer, you feel helpless seeing people in pain and you have to put on a brave face
Becoming a carer for my parents came out of the blue for me. I had a phone call from my Mum to say she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She was 67, a vegetarian and hadn’t smoked for over 40 years. The only person I’d known to have lung cancer had died within six months, so in my head her diagnosis was terminal.
I attended the medical appointments with her and stepped into a sort of role reversal, an adult child trying to be strong for my parents. The Macmillan adverts showing people moving in slow motion struck a chord with me. I wondered how everyone else could carry on as normal. My Mum was lucky – she had keyhole surgery and recovered.
Some time later, my Dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer, then a routine mammogram led to a breast cancer diagnosis for my Mum. After the initial shock of Mum’s lung cancer, I found the subsequent diagnoses less of a bombshell and slightly easier to deal with. I knew that cancer wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. I took a problem-solving approach. Which questions do we need to ask? What do we need to do to get through this?
If you’re supporting a person with cancer, go to the appointments with them if you can. Write down the questions you want to ask beforehand and don’t feel afraid to ask them. Take notes or even record the discussion on your phone. It’s a lot for the patient to take in and your account of what’s happening could help them out later.
Caring for someone through cancer treatment can be tough and it was hard to see my parents so terrified. As a carer, you feel helpless seeing people in pain and you have to put on a brave face yourself. The effects of different cancer treatments can also vary a lot. With radiotherapy, the person is exhausted afterwards.
They might have a burn, they don’t lose their hair, but they do look ill, and the side effects can last up to a year and a half after treatment. With chemo, the day or two following treatment will be a write-off, then they tend to recover slowly from there. When I wasn’t with my parents, I kept up the emotional support with regular phone calls and reassured them it was ok to just go back to bed on a bad day.
When I was caring for my son previously, I accessed the Carers’ Centre and found them to be a great source of support. They offer a safe space to explore how you feel and get some respite. The BANES Carers’ Centre also offers support for young carers and Penny Brohn runs courses specifically designed to help carers and families through the impact of a cancer diagnosis.
It’s essential to find out what your own self-care needs are when you’re looking after someone else. When things got on top of me, I realised it was time to reclaim something for myself and see my friends – having their support was vital to me. I’d advise others in my situation to talk when things get tough. Choose someone you trust and be honest. If you’re having a rubbish day and feel like you can’t go on, you should be able to say so. Don’t worry about making other people feel uncomfortable.
As a nutritionist, I have a holistic approach to health. My parents take supplements now, but you can’t force someone to take all your advice. People have to live the way they want to and I do want my parents to enjoy retirement the way they choose to.
I help run the We Get It ‘Get Together’ every Friday at Café Walcot from 10:30am to 12:30pm. The sessions are for everyone affected by cancer, not just those who have had a diagnosis. So, if you’re a carer and you need a little support, come and join us!