Caring for the caregiver

Cancer patients are supported by professional caregivers, and family and friends, who may also play the role of the caregiver. But who supports the caregiver? 

Ripple effect

A breast cancer diagnosis is like an earthquake with the patient being the epicentre. Aside from the obvious implication of having the ground shaken beneath one’s feet, there is a ripple effect with the aftershock being felt a distance from the epicentre. This means that family, friends, and even work colleagues are affected by the diagnosis.

The patient is often supported by healthcare professionals, allied health professionals, family and friends. But who supports the caregivers? The emphasis tends to be on the patient. And, rightly so. But, this often means that the spouse and family looking after the patient are neglected.  

The strain of a caregiver

Caregivers may have their own fears and anxieties attributable to the diagnosis, in addition to the physical and mental strain associated with caring for the patient. 

They may not feel comfortable expressing the difficulties they’re facing, as they do not want to take the focus off the patient. The strains they experience with regards to caring for a family member diagnosed with cancer are often added to the normal stresses of daily living, including going to work, maintaining a household, paying bills, and looking after children.

The cancer patient may not be able to contribute financially or physically to maintaining a household, with the result that added strain is placed on the caregiver(s).

Caregivers are likely to suffer from both physical and mental exhaustion with the pressure of juggling so many balls in the air. This may lead to depression and anxiety, which may present in numerous ways, such as anger or aggression, irritability, difficulty sleeping, struggling to get through tasks, apathy or lack of motivation, and risk-taking behaviour. Plus, caregivers often neglect their own health, resulting in the development of chronic medical conditions.      

How are you coping?

We, as doctors, need to do better in recognising and managing mental and physical health problems in caregivers, as they are unlikely to come forward and acknowledge that they are struggling. Therefore, we need to actively screen for symptoms of depression and anxiety, and any medical conditions, so that the necessary pharmacological and psychological support can be offered. We just need to ask one simple question: “How are you coping?” After all, if the caregiver falls to pieces, who will be there to support the patient?

Caregivers, we commend you

It’s vitally important that we recognise and applaud the amazing work that caregivers do in caring for our patients. They’re forced to take on and juggle so many roles at the same time.

Professional caregivers who are employed to care for terminally ill cancer patients also deserve a special mention. The work they do is so much more than just a job. It’s a calling!

 If you’re a caregiver, please know that you are not alone. Reach out and ask for help if you’re struggling. Talk to the doctor managing your loved one. Get in touch with a patient navigator. Contact a support group. Use social media platforms and online support groups. We see your efforts and we are here to help.

Dr Inge Kriel is an oncology care physician practicing at Netcare Milpark Hospital.


Dr Inge Kriel is an oncology care physician practicing at Netcare Milpark Hospital.