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Caregiver Balances Care for Himself, Patient

CancerWise - September 2007

By Lisa Garvin

Taking care of someone with cancer is challenging. For 60-year-old caregiver Robert Bowden, helping his wife Becky through a difficult recovery from appendix tumor surgery brought on stress, fear and even health problems.

Like many couples, however, the deep affection they share for one another carried them through the biggest challenges that cancer and caregiving had to offer.

Couple handles physical challenges together

Robert and Becky Bowden

The Bowdens knew Becky would need a lot of help after her 2004 surgery for pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rare tumor of the appendix that required 10 hours of surgery. Their surgeon, Paul Mansfield, M.D., warned the couple that Becky would not feel well for at least three months and that full recovery could take perhaps a year.

Although Robert learned how to take care of the feeding tube and change dressings during Becky’s 47-day hospital stay, he says the scariest day of his life was when she came home.

“I’m not going to have these nurses and room service, and the other things the hospital provided,” he remembers thinking. “I’m going to be on my own when I get home with her!”

The Cypress, Texas, couple had some early difficulties with the feeding tube, which kept Becky from getting enough nutrition during her first month at home. After the tube was removed, Becky was able to eat normally and her health improved significantly.

Becky also experienced a condition called “third spacing,” which is caused by fluids flowing into areas of the body, such as the abdominal cavity. Although she swelled up with fluid “like the Pillsbury doughboy,” Becky was dehydrated, Robert says.

Stress aggravates existing heart problems

As is typical with caring relationships, the Bowdens each downplayed their own issues while praising the other’s efforts. Becky insists that she was not easy to care for and that this affected Robert's existing health problem.

He suffers from bouts of atrial fibrillation, in which the top two chambers of the heart flutter instead of beating properly.

“It’s brought on by high stress, fatigue, not enough rest, that kind of thing,” he says. “I finally told her that my heart was messed up and I needed to go to the doctor. Of course, her story is that she broke my heart,” he chuckles.

Robert, on the other hand, says Becky was a good patient and he never worried about his health or his ability to care for her.

“You do get stressed out,” he admits reluctantly. “You’ve got obligations to the job, keeping up the house and pets and paying the bills. But we never got to where we couldn’t handle our life.”

Work support is helpful

Both Robert and Becky were very lucky to have sympathetic employers.

Robert and Becky Bowden by stained glass window“My employer was extremely good to me and allowed me to work at home and have flexible hours,” Robert says. “I used sick time and vacation, and basically didn’t have to show up for nine weeks.”

Becky’s job as a medical technologist was held for her until she could return. The Bowdens are also fortunate that they didn’t experience any financial issues or other external pressures that others may face, such as job loss or lack of health insurance coverage.

Robert says caregiving leaves no time for hobbies, sports and other leisure activities.

A talented stained glass artist whose work graces area homes and churches, he was working on his “masterpiece” when Becky became ill. He had to stop for several months, but finished the piece after his wife fully recovered. It now has a special place in their home.

Caregiving role continues with new cancer

The couple made it through recovery, but were challenged once again in 2006 when Becky was diagnosed with breast cancer. which she kept from Robert at first. “I got angry because she was not truthful with me,” he says.

Becky didn’t reveal her new diagnosis until they’d returned from a vacation in Oregon, which already had been delayed by her appendix cancer two years earlier. He understands why Becky withheld the information, and they were able to get past it.

Illness brings couple together

The Bowdens have found that the caregiver-patient experience has made a great relationship even stronger.

While they met some couples whose marriages didn’t survive the strain of dealing with cancer, Robert and Becky found it was the best thing that could have happened to them.

“We’ve met some of the best people in our life through cancer,” Robert says. “It changed our whole outlook on life, what life’s about and why it’s worth living.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center