When someone is diagnosed with cancer, everyone in that person’s life is affected by the diagnosis – family members, friends, coworkers and neighbors … the list goes on. All of these people are concerned about the person with cancer, but it’s usually just one person who takes on the critical and demanding job of “caregiver.”
Being a caregiver can be a full time job. Caregivers bring patients to appointments, listen to doctors’ recommendations, fill prescriptions, call insurance companies, and make appointments. And, on top of countless hours at the cancer center, they also keep everything together at home (child care, bills, dishes, groceries, etc.). Given the enormous amount of time and energy that caregivers spend in the fight against cancer, even the most loving and devoted of them get tired of caring, and may experience something called “compassion fatigue.”
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, compassion is “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.” When you have compassion fatigue, you are literally tired of helping someone else. Compassion fatigue may actually be expected under some circumstances. For instance, Jill is the caregiver for her husband David who has metastatic bladder cancer. Together, Jill and David have been fighting David’s cancer for 8 months with countless doctors’ appointments, hospitalizations and frustrating calls to the insurance company. Because chemotherapy makes David nauseated, Jill must do all the cooking and cleaning for the couple and their two kids. Through cancer David has had a lot of worry about missing work and his chance of survival, and so Jill has been listening, problem solving and trying to support David’s emotional well-being day and night. About 7 months in, Jill found herself taking longer walks in the evening, hoping that David would be asleep when she got back. She also started getting irritable before driving to appointments, and would purposefully turn on the radio so she did not have to listen to David. The tension built up until one day, when David asked about his prescription, Jill surprised herself, and David, by shouting “why don’t you just go pick it up yourself for once?! I am tired too!”
Fortunately, David was able to appreciate that the job of caregiving is demanding and difficult, so he did not get mad at Jill. However, as a couple, they knew that in order to beat cancer they would have to find a way to manage Jill’s compassion fatigue. By recognizing the compassion fatigue and treating it, they were able to avoid getting into more arguments or letting too much resentment build up. Here are some of the key strategies Jill used to treat her compassion fatigue:
1. Take breaks daily. This is a must.
2. Get enough sleep (when possible).
3. Make time for healthy meals.
4. Have a list of people that you can call on for help – and let them help. Check out churches, mosques, temples, community centers, library, adult care services, extended family, neighbors, volunteer organizations and agencies you pay for help.
5. Write out specific jobs for people. Do not feel guilty about asking for help. People feel better when they are able to do something nice for someone.
6. Find something to laugh about, and, if possible, something the patient can laugh about, too.
7. Keep a three-ring binder notebook for all the medical details – include a calendar, a to-do list, copies of test results, and any new questions. Bring it to all the appointments.
8. Bring all the medicines in a bag to all the appointments.
9. Take another break.
10. Have a helpful phrases that you tell yourself, such as “I am just going to do the best I can.” Repeat this often.
Once Jill was feeling better about caregiving, she and David found themselves enjoying each other’s company again. As David said, “cancer may have made me sick, but we are not going to let cancer make us sick of each other!” Cancer challenges even the strongest marriages and relationships, but once compassion fatigue is addressed, the beauty of people taking care of each other shines brightly.