In the U.S, it is estimated that 9.8 million people have a history of cancer; some are now cancer-free, but some are still dealing with the reality of the disease every day. It’s not something that most of us want to face, but there are many people who have no other choice. Our hearts go out to the people afflicted with the various forms of this terrible disease. . . but what about their family members?
With the more serious cases of cancer, victims’ loved ones are forced to become caregivers. Spouses, children, siblings, and parents must care for cancer patients in their own homes or supplement the care they receive in hospices. They help the patient with everyday tasks such as bathing, grooming, eating, moving about, and taking medication. Basically, the family member becomes an unofficial nurse.
While admirable, the act of caring for a seriously ill loved one can take a great toll both physically and emotionally on the caregiver. The burden of responsibility and the overpowering stress can cause depression and various other health problems in the caregiver.
However, a new study, published in the Jan. 2006 issue of Cancer, may point the way to a viable solution for family caregivers. Researchers from the University of South Florida in Tampa decided to look into a program that had already shown great promise for improving the well-being of caregivers of Alzheimer’s disease patients.
The study followed 354 family caregivers of patients in a community hospice, dividing the caregivers and their patients into three groups, with each group receiving different services. The three groups were standard hospice care; standard care and three visits from a nurse and home health aide for emotional support; and standard care and three sessions teaching them coping skills, including the assessment and management of the cancer patient’s symptoms.
At the end of the month-long study, the caregivers who learned coping skills reported the most significant improvements in their quality of life out of all three groups. This group was also less stressed by their respective cancer patient’s physical symptoms, including pain, and felt less overwhelmed by the various personal-care tasks they performed.
So, it seems that people taking care of their ill family members are in need of more than just emotional support — it turns out that problem-solving and coping skills can go a long way toward improved quality of life for both the patient and his or her caregiver as well.