Caring for Someone Else When You Have Breast Cancer


We all know that life isn't fair, but sometimes it seems that life has it in for us. Ask any caregiver who has just, themselves, been diagnosed with a chronic or potentially fatal disease. The future of their loved one is in the balance along with their own health, which compounds the distressing news about their own health.

Statistics that place caregivers at greater risk for depression, injury or auto-immune diseases aren't hard to find. Caregivers are also at greater risk for undetected cancers and other diseases that could be discovered with appropriate early screening simply because they are prone to putting their own needs last. Denial works into this, since as caregivers, we often don't have a clue what we'd do for our loved ones if something happens to us.

October is breast cancer awareness month

A mentally and physically sharp woman in her early 70s, was caring for her husband of many decades who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The wife was coping as well as could be expected. She also was doing what many caregivers do. She was ignoring her own health needs.

This lovely, intelligent woman had always been healthy. She had always had mammograms that had come up clean and she did regular self-exams. However, after her husband's diagnosis, caregiving took over her life. She skipped a couple of her routine medical appointments simply because she felt "doctored out" with all of her husband's medical needs. Caregiving can be exhausting, but about three years into her husband's dementia care, her chronic tiredness seemed, even to her, extreme. This is when she decided to get a checkup.

The results were not good. After many tests, her doctor informed her that she had an aggressive type of breast cancer. She'd need a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Her first thoughts were about how she could possibly care for her husband while going through all of this medical care herself?

What happens when the caregiver needs care?

What she did was enlist her children's help more than ever. She also hired some in-home help for awhile. Unfortunately, since her own diagnosis, her husband's dementia seemed to gather speed. Even though her husband was cognitively impaired, he apparently understood the seriousness of his wife's disease

Eventually, this woman had to place her husband in a nursing home. For several months, she visited him there as many days as she could. Then the day came when she could no longer manage a visit. Within a week, she had died. The family took her husband to her funeral, though they felt he couldn't understand what had happened. However, only 10 days later, he too died.

If this caregiver had taken care of her own needs, if she had gotten her routine checkups including her mammograms, would she still be alive? We don't know, of course. However, to me it's fair to say that she would have had a better chance of survival had she cared not only for her husband, but for herself, as well.

Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others

The warning you've heard on airplanes so often you ignore it holds true here. They tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first, before those you need to help. That's the only way you keep your ability to help others.

If you are a caregiver, and are serious about giving your care receiver the best care possible, you absolutely must take care of your own physical, mental and emotional health. This must be done even if it means less hands-on personal care for your loved one at the time. Why? Because, if you take care of your own health, your chances of being able to provide hands-on care to your love one. Get your mammograms. Get some rest. Do what you need to do for your mental health. You'll be a better caregiver because of it.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Minding Our Elders

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This is such BS. At least the part about getting a mammogram so often. Yes, caregivers routinely ignore their own needs, but what I'm seeing here is a scare tactic for running to get screenings rather than take care of oneself naturally. Even worse, I have to wonder why the husband died so suddenly. Clearly there's a lot more to this one anecdotal and not very scientific story than is given here.
I would love to see a doctor - but having been unemployed and working as a full time caregiver to my mom the last 2 1/2 yrs, I have no insurance. So even if they found something wrong, I couldn't afford to get it fixed. And I am one of many many thousands in the same situation.
I appreciate the reminder to make sure I take care of myself first. Having regular checkups might not have changed this lady's ending. I know young (in comparison) people, who have had regular checkups and when something aggressive came along, they were gone quickly. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't take care of ourselves. We tend to put things off and then time passes quickly. Thanks for the reminder.