QUESTION: My younger sister just passed her two-year cancer-free mark. Everyone feels our prayers have been answered. Everyone except my sister. She tends to be very quiet, maybe even depressed, worried and unable to accept that her cancer has been cured. We want to celebrate; she just seems to want to cry. All of our family members joined together and took on caregiving responsibilities, and now feel we have failed her in some way. Are we doing something wrong? Should we be concerned about my sister’s inability to accept her good fortune? —Riley
ANSWER: You and your family caregivers are feeling exactly how you should. Your sister survived cancer, and that is quite a feat. The future looks positive, and you want to celebrate her success and return to good health. Unfortunately, it is within the normal range of emotions and behaviors for cancer survivors to feel they face a never-ending threat. The diagnosis itself can create trauma leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If this is the case with your sister, she will most likely need a mental health professional to help her manage the symptoms.
According to the medical professionals at the Cancer Survivorship Program at the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, located in the suburbs of Chicago, the disease and treatment have the power to alter a person’s health, self-perception, relationships and outlook on life in general. There are many cancer survivorship programs cropping up throughout the country, which is largely due to the fact that approximately 12 million people survive cancer in the United States annually. This is an encouraging increase in survival rates, considering in the early 1970s that number was only 3 million. Clinicians who work with cancer survivors are trained to help with the physical after-effects of cancer treatments, such as cardiovascular problems due to certain chemotherapy drugs. Additionally, social workers are trained to help with the personal challenges, such as securing and retaining medical insurance, for example.
Perhaps the best way to help your sister through this trying time in her life is to encourage her to eat well, exercise daily and enjoy pleasurable outings. Adapting to the needs of those in our care is the best gift we can give. Author Emily Hollenberg wrote: “Cancer is a journey, but you walk the road alone. There are many places to stop along the way and get nourishment — you just have to be willing to take it.” Your sister has experienced an emotional roller coaster and may never fully recover. But she is fortunate to have experienced nourishment along the way. Maybe as time passes, she will be able to feel gratitude and embrace life once more. But for now, meeting her where she is might just be the best mode of caregiving.
For more information and resources pertaining to cancer care, visit the American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.