When our patients undergo treatment, the focus is on them and their needs. But cancer often affects the entire family, especially caregivers. To help, we have employees and programs that provide support to those who care for cancer patients.
"I've made a special effort in my role to acknowledge caregivers and how tough it can be to take care of somebody you love," Traci Newsom says.
A social work counselor at MD Anderson in the Bay Area, Newsom serves as an outlet for caregivers to share their feelings and the challenges they face.
Caregivers often neglect their own needs when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Because MD Anderson values family-centered care, we have employees like Newsom who are devoted to supporting our patients' supporters -- ensuring they never feel alone or lost.
Helping caregivers find balance
Caregivers experience an interesting combination of facing challenging duties and savoring precious moments with their loved ones.
They often must maintain what they were doing before they started caring for someone with cancer in addition to taking on new responsibilities, such as supporting the family financially or managing the household.
Donia Crouch Brown went from a young woman anticipating marrying the love of her life to becoming a full-time caregiver for her late husband, Taylor Brown.
"It was hard because the person I would usually lean on was lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life," she says.
By her side was Martha Aschenbrenner, a senior counseling associate in Palliative Care Medicine.
Aschenbrenner helped Brown plan a wedding in the Palliative Care Unit and a funeral 40 days later.
"Taylor was going to heaven, and I didn't know how to pick up the pieces of our life by myself," Brown says. "Martha acknowledged my feelings and provided guidance for what to do next."
Because of this support, Brown felt that she could be peaceful and present for her husband during the short time she had left with him.
"I have to remind caregivers that it's about them, too," Aschenbrenner says. "They have the right to be cared for, to be heard and to know that what they're feeling is valid."
More than a year after losing her husband, Brown still knows she can count on Aschenbrenner.
"I know that if I called her right now, she could help me," she says.
Social work counselors help families stay strong
Martha Askins, Ph.D., associate professor in Pediatrics, leads studies to determine the best ways to support parents as they cope with their children's new cancer diagnosis.
"If the parents are anxious, then the children can become worried and scared," Askins says.
She adds that parents need to have opportunities to process their own feelings to be emotionally strong for their children who are fighting cancer.
To help them, social work counselors like Morgan Henry provide counseling, education and resources. Every patient is assigned a social work counselor, who addresses basic needs, like lodging and transportation, and provides support on an emotionally deeper level.
"By supporting caregivers, it helps alleviate some distress for patients," Henry shares. "Often, patients aren't in a position to support their family members like they could prior to the cancer diagnosis. Knowing that someone can provide that support in the interim can help alleviate any burdens they feel."
"Sometimes caregivers have the best advice to share because they've been there," says Laura De La Rosa.
De La Rosa helps organize myCancerConnection's one-on-one support program, which connects survivors and caregivers who have similar cancer diagnoses and treatments, regardless of where treatment was received.
The program allows caregivers to share their feelings, see what other caregivers' experiences were like and pick up some pointers.
myCancerConnection also provides Hospitality Centers staffed by volunteer survivors and caregivers. Caregivers can take a break in the centers and receive guidance from others who truly know what they're going through.
"It's all about people not feeling alone and connecting with someone who really understands," De La Rosa says.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly publication for employees.