Battling lung cancer, lung cancer symptoms, and the side effects of lung cancer treatment is a draining process, both physically and emotionally. One key factor that lightens that weight is having the support of a caregiver.
“Family members and friends are vitally important for lung cancer patients as they go through the course of their treatment,” says Kevin Sullivan, MD, lung oncologist at Monter Cancer Center, Northwell Health.
The presence of an active and supportive caregiver has many incredible benefits for the patient, according to a 2012 meta-study at Georgia Southern University. Good caregiving is linked with reduced pain and anxiety, improved compliance with medication, and better sleep for patients, to name just a few.
“Patients diagnosed with lung cancer need help. No one can do this alone,” says Jorge Gomez, MD, lung oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. If you’re in the position to be a caregiver for a loved one that’s battling lung cancer, here are six major ways you can help.
1. Caregivers can help patients remember and process information during appointments.
Hearing a doctor discuss treatment and expected side effects for something as serious as cancer can be really overwhelming. It might be hard to take it all in—and then remember that information later when it’s needed.
Enter, the caregiver. Two brains are better than one, so having a second pair of ears in the doctor’s room can be a big help for your loved one. Be present in appointments in case the patient didn’t hear something important or forgot it, says Dr. Sullivan.
Even if your loved one is usually “with it” and organized, cancer treatment may alter their cognitive functioning, according to the American Cancer Society. Many patients complain of “chemo brain,” referring to memory loss or difficulty concentrating during chemotherapy.
2. Caregivers can help ask questions about treatment and how to manage side effects.
In addition to actively listening, you as a caregiver can also help ask questions during appointments. To give your partner, parent, or other loved one the best support, it helps to think about what questions to ask ahead of time.
Dr. Gomez suggests asking specific questions, such as, “What can we expect from this treatment?” and “What can we do to help the patient feel better?”
Since a doctor’s appointment is often brief, think of targeted questions that will make the best use of the appointment. If you don’t understand a doctor’s answer, ask for clarification and take notes. It’s crucial that you don’t leave the appointment until you understand.
3. Caregivers should aim to attend treatments of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, at least in the beginning.
Both chemotherapy and immunotherapy can trigger side effects that range in severity. Some patients might be able to do these sessions independently and walk away without a problem, but others may be debilitated by side effects and need the support.
“You may or may not have significant side effects,” says Dr. Gomez. “In the first treatment, you may get a sense of what types of side effects you’ll have.” After a few sessions, a patient should be able to decide if assistance is needed.
4. Caregivers can speak candidly with the doctor about things not mentioned by the patient.
It’s OK—and even encouraged—to speak privately with a doctor about something the patient isn’t disclosing. Common examples of this include letting the doctor know that your loved one is experiencing a certain side effect or feeling depressed at home, according to Dr. Sullivan.
5. Caregivers can help with errands and other obligations.
All the necessary tasks that keep a home running and functioning might be a bit more difficult for someone going through cancer treatment, such as buying groceries, paying bills on time, caring for pets, running errands, and cleaning.
Your loved one might not ask for assistance with these tasks, so you may need to offer it. For some patients, specific questions might help. Instead of asking, “Can I help with anything,” ask, “Can I help grab some groceries for you today?”
6. Caregivers should have their own emotional support network.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed as a caregiver for someone with cancer, and you don’t need to feel guilty about seeking help yourself. In fact, the more you can keep yourself physically and emotionally healthy, the better you will be able to assist your loved one.
“Being a caregiver for a patient with lung cancer is difficult,” says Dr. Gomez. “It’s important to have your own support system, including emotional, to help you through this.”
Another way to support your own mental health is by not blaming the patient for their lung cancer diagnosis. In a 2011 study published in Psycho-Oncology, caregivers who blamed the patient experienced more severe symptoms of depression than caregivers who did not.
You can connect with other caregivers through online support communities or through local support groups. Your hospital may even provide this service. Check out the American Cancer Society to look for online or local support groups for cancer caregivers.