In 2015, the Providers Association for Home Health & Hospice Agencies declared the third Friday in February as National Caregivers Day—falling on February 17 (today). This decision was inspired by the need to recognize and appreciate caregivers around the country for the support they provide to those with cancer and other diseases.
A caregiver could be an individual’s friend or family member, who assists with day-to-day activities (e.g., taking showers, using the restroom, cooking), coordinating care, and administering medication(s) in cases where the person cannot do so themselves. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and American Association of Retired Persons, an estimated 53 million caregivers in the United States cared for an adult or child without monetary compensation in 2020. Although most caregivers tend to one adult, approximately 15 percent care for two adults and 3 percent care for three adults or more.
Today, anti-cancer treatment for patients is primarily conducted in the outpatient setting. As a result, these patients may require more extensive assistance from a caregiver (e.g., traveling to and from medical appointments, sitting alongside patients during treatment, etc.) in addition to their own daily activities. Additionally, more than 90 percent of patients with cancer have a caregiver, and these individuals play a key role in the treatment of patients—one that can change based on patients’ needs before, during, and after treatment. Given the importance of caregivers in the cancer care continuum, it is important to address the mental health challenges that caregivers everywhere face.
A cancer diagnosis changes the lives of the individual diagnosed and their loved ones instantaneously. The friends and/or family members of some patients can be thrust into the caregiving role—one they may be ill prepared to handle. Despite caregivers’ personal feelings toward their role, feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression are common among them and patients given the weight a cancer diagnosis carries. More than one in five Americans (21.3 percent) are presently a caregiver to a loved one, and among that population nearly 38 percent find their situation extremely stressful.
In a recent survey, 36 percent of caregivers for individuals with cancer report feeling emotionally stressed. A further 18 percent report feeling physically strained, while another 17 percent report experiencing financial difficulties. Another meta-analysis, which reviewed 35 studies with a total of 11,396 participants, found that 42.08 percent of oncology caregivers suffer from depression. These findings are reflective of a report, stating that more than 20 percent of caregivers, who care for a family member, suffer from depression—that is twice the rate of the general population. Caregivers need support just as patients with cancer do. This support may include resources from the cancer program or practice treating the patient or external organizations that are dedicated to meet caregivers’ unique needs, such as Jack’s Caregiver Coalition. While caregiving for those with cancer can be challenging, it is imperative that caregivers also find time to care for themselves.
In her book CareGiving: Helping an Aging Loved One, Jo Horne penned the Caregiver’s Bill of Rights. To begin, Horne writes:
“I have the right to take care of myself. This is not an act of selfishness. It will give me the ability to take better care of my loved one.
I have the right to seek help from others even though my loved one may object. I know the limits of my own endurance and strength.”
It is essential that caregivers understand what Horne is saying—self-care is not selfish. Cancer care teams can do their part in making that message clear to caregivers. Further, if the mental health needs of caregivers remain unaddressed, it can affect the well‐being and the health outcomes of the patients they are helping. Thus, recognizing National Caregivers Day means also recognizing and addressing the needs of caregivers and patients alike.
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