Sometimes I get so busy that things get by me; I send a lot of belated cards. One thing that quickly escapes me is the cancer awareness months.
Keeping up with the many cancer awareness months can be hard. Most of us take note of the one that has special meaning in our lives, and of course, due to the massive pink overload, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is rarely if ever overlooked. But November came and went with little notice being paid to lung, carcinoid, stomach, and pancreatic cancers that call the month their home. Did you know, though, that November is also National Caregivers Month? Much like caregivers themselves, this little fact slipped by unrecognized by many people.
According to statistics from the Family Caregiver Alliance, 29 percent of US adults (65.7 million) provide care to someone who is ill, disabled, or elderly. The services rendered by these caregivers were valued at $450 billion in 2009.
This is an easily overlooked group of people who suffer in silence. Most caregivers are nurturing, self-sacrificing people, but their burden is great. Caregivers often must try to provide physical and emotional support to a loved one while trying to hold down a job to support themselves and their families.
As a cancer nurse navigator, I try to find ways to support these stressed caregivers, but I often find that my attempts are feeble and inadequate. Caregiver support groups often fail, because caregivers are too busy caring. They would have to find someone to fill their shoes for that hour each month, and the difficulty of arranging such a break may prevent them from having that relief available for a doctor visit, grocery trip, or other necessity.
Caregivers may feel guilt when they leave the patient's bedside. And caregivers who provide care to cancer patients often have the added emotional strain of providing end-of-life care. Help from home health agencies is limited by insurance, if they are fortunate enough to have insurance. If not, the expense of such help comes out of pocket, and when illness lingers, funds do not hold out.
A Lund University study found that the illness rate for those married or cohabiting with a cancer patient rose 25 percent in the year following their partner's diagnosis. Spouses of lung cancer patients were the worst affected, with cardiovascular disease increasing at a rate of 50 percent; and the spouses took 70 percent more days off sick than the general population in the year following their partner's diagnosis.
Caregiving is strenuous, and yet National Caregivers Month and its plum-colored ribbon made nary a flicker in the collective consciousness. How do we help caregivers? Sometimes it's a matter of realizing that there are dozens of little things we take for granted each day that a caregiver may find extremely difficult, like returning a library book or just taking a moment of silence. Though it is not cancer specific, the Alzheimer's Association has a wonderfully practical list of things that can be done to help a caregiver.
Nearly every task in life requires time and energy -- things that are in short supply for caregivers. If each of us, whether we are healthcare professionals, family members, or friends, could take care of just one such task for a caregiver, imagine the impact that could be made -- in November or in any month.
One elderly woman who served as an end-of-life caregiver for her grandparents, her parents, and finally her husband told me she counted it an honor to be able to contribute so meaningfully to their time on earth. She was a tiny, frail woman, but she was a caregiving powerhouse. To her and all the caregivers like her, thank you.