The thriving caregiver

Spouse, significant other, child, relative or friend, when someone you love hears the words, “you have breast cancer,” you are unexpectedly thrust into a role you didn’t ask for, requiring knowledge, skills, and resources you never expected to need. You are vital in the overall wellbeing and quality of life of your loved one. Your value as the caregiver is indispensable and is a key natural resource in this challenging time.

There are no set rules when it comes to supporting someone who has cancer. Helen Ferreira (70) is semi-retired and resides in Queenstown, in the Eastern Cape. She recently had to undertake an informal caregiving role after her daughter, Lizelle Slabber was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2014. Helen shares her journey with Buddies for Life.

When you found out Lizelle had breast cancer, what were the emotions you experienced?

I was sitting together with Lizelle in her GP’s room, when he suddenly broke the news. It was quite a shock for both of us. I immediately realised that I would have to be strong for Lizelle and her children, Phebe (6) and Zack (2) at the time. I actually experienced imminent strength and calmness, which has carried me through the past 8 – 9 months. Only God and all the prayers for Lizelle and our family have kept us strong and focused.

What were the effects of Lizelle’s treatment?

Lizelle’s chemotherapy started on 25 November 2014. Martin, Lizelle’s husband, took her to her chemo sessions, while I stayed home to look after the children. I also offered pragmatic things such as making dinner and doing the laundry etc. Lizelle received Doxorubicin (the generic name for the chemotherapy drug Adriamycin a.k.a “the red devil” due to its red color) during her chemotherapy session every three weeks. Overall Lizelle had, so far, undergone seven chemo treatments.

Chemo was horrible – the waiting and knowing how ill Lizelle would be after every treatment was awful. Undergoing the bad side effects to achieve the good results was the proverbial silver lining in this situation.

Not knowing how she would react to chemo, we did not have plans in place. Nausea, mouth ulcers, diarrhea were some of the side effects that you have to deal with. Lizelle left home for the 1st session looking relatively well albeit emotional, but what a shock when she returned. Directly after her treatments, she would sleep for 3 – 4 days only sucking ice cubes and drinking small amounts of water. I slept on a mattress in front of her bed, being concerned that she might fall whilst going to the bathroom. This continued for the entire time of her chemo treatment.

The first morning that Lizelle asked for toast, I could have jumped for joy! Almost a week after her treatment, Lizelle would normally become mobile again and then I would return to my home for 10 days or so until the time came for the next treatment. This pattern was to define our lives for the duration of Lizelle’s chemo treatment. I would sit in Lizelle’s bedroom, knitting, crocheting, but mostly just to be there in case she needed anything, even if it was just water. It was very difficult keeping the children away whilst Lizelle was sleeping, but they were so good about it. At one stage Lizelle said that she couldn’t go through with another dose of chemo again, but with persuasion she did go back. Thankfully!

For a mother to sit and see your child so ill from her treatment, but knowing that it could potentially save her life, is an enormously difficult position to be in. It is for the greater good. With support and prayer you do survive.

How did you feel when Lizelle went for her last treatment?

Lizelle’s last chemo session was as emotional as all the others prior to that, but there was now a light at the end of the tunnel. Emotions of relief and even exhaustion ran very high.

What are some of the challenges Lizelle face now after treatments have ended?

Radiation is still to follow for six weeks once Lizelle has recovered sufficiently from her surgeries. Facing life again normally is perhaps another obstacle to overcome, but a welcome one!

Do you fear that Lizelle’s cancer will return?

The fear of the cancer returning is there. No-one can ever be totally sure of our number of days and our lives ahead.

A special message to other ‘supporters’ out there: 
In blessing others, be it family or friends, they will in turn be a blessing to you and your life will be the richer for it.
Are there any assumptions/ misconceptions about breast cancer that you would like to shed some light on?

You CAN survive breast cancer – the correct diagnosis and excellent medical attention is crucial, I believe.

What would you say are the best ways to support a loved one who has Cancer?

Support depends on the individual. I didn’t force anything on her such as eating, or to get up, or to talk. It was important for me not to make decisions for Lizelle – she was strong enough to do that on her own. Just be there for her and her family, to give comfort, was a blessing.

What is happening to you and Lizelle as you move through the rest of your life?

Lizelle and I were close prior to her cancer as our whole family is. Perhaps even more so as we faced this together. Now that we have journeyed through this difficult period in our lives and are getting back on track, I believe that we love and support each other even more. Life is not to be taken for granted! It seems as though we have been awoken from a nasty nightmare and the sun is shining brilliantly again.

Written By Else Beneke.

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