Challenges of a Caregiver: Taking Care of Loved Ones' Mental Health and Nutrition
Last updated: August 2023
Many articles have been written about being a caregiver. I’ll limit this article to addressing mental health and nutrition. My experiences are not all related to caregiving for a prostate cancer patient. I think, though, that everything I speak about here can be applicable to helping any patient.
A role I wasn't initially prepared for
First, my experience with cancer. My husband has stage 4 prostate cancer, and as a result of that diagnosis, he has had a lot of treatment. He had a radical prostatectomy, several rounds of chemo both during initial treatment and during recurrence, and of course, various medications with unwanted side effects. He was later diagnosed with bladder cancer. More surgery, more treatment. Then came heart attacks, cardiac ablations, several stents in his legs, bariatric surgery, implanting of a pacemaker.
The last couple years have been filled with helping my daughter through her breast cancer. She had a long battle and hard treatment: chemo, two mastectomies each a year apart, blood clots, radiation, more meds with unwelcome side effects. Now it’s my turn to fight the enemy in the form of my own breast cancer.
I never pictured myself as a nurse and was not in the least prepared for that role. But I have cleaned and dressed incisions, emptied and sterilized drainage tubes, and administered a complex regimen of medications. These were all things I never imagined doing or felt in any way qualified to do. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. I felt overwhelmed by pain experienced by others when I was unable to relieve that pain.
No one prepared us for the emotional challenges
The sadness and depression my patients experienced were contagious. I couldn’t turn off my emotions, because I was trying to help the people who have my heart.
We worked with many medical professionals through our disease journeys, and not one ever discussed the mental well-being of the patient or caregiver. We were left alone to figure out what to do about the mental health issues that often accompany the disease. We tried to separate ourselves from the illness; we were still the same people, but we were facing new challenges. We researched available resources, and there are many. We contacted professionals who counsel patients specifically with cancer and those who work with caregivers.
We joined many web-based groups but quickly learned that they do not all offer encouragement or provide helpful information. (ProstateCancer.net is the exception - there’s a wealth of helpful information and support here). We learned the importance of family and relied on close friends, but also learned where we needed to establish boundaries. As a family, our faith in God is strong. Our faith gave us strength when we had none of our own and often replaced anxiety with peace. Everyone is impacted differently by cancer. It’s critical to not ignore the mental health side of this disease.
Another challenge: nutrition
Another important factor in the cancer fight is that appropriate and adequate nutrition can play a role in the healing process. As a caregiver, that’s a serious responsibility. Learning what foods are beneficial and which foods are not beneficial, or even harmful, is part of that responsibility.
Each patient, each disease, had its own set of rules for nutrition. In caring for my husband with prostate and bladder cancer, I tried to push fruits and vegetables, stay away from red meats, sugar, and high fat. He’s a carnivore and didn’t always cooperate, but I still made big salads.
Fish and chicken were the substance of most meals. After his bariatric surgery, we were presented with a whole new set of rules. Post-surgery, week one consisted of liquid only. During weeks 2 and 3, cooked bland chicken was pureed and initially offered in two tablespoon amounts. If you’ve ever tried unseasoned pureed chicken, you know it’s not very appealing.
My daughter struggled with food after her mastectomies and during chemo. We pushed protein drinks several times a day, as protein was the most important thing in her diet. She didn’t like the taste and just “chugged” them down as quickly as she could. But she knew she had to drink them to gain strength. When she felt better we added green smoothies that included lots of vegetables with healing properties: kale, spinach, beets, ginger, celery, carrots. Like the pureed chicken my husband ate, the green drinks were not the best in flavor, but full of strengthening vitamins and minerals.
So many different responsibilities
Caregiving is hard. There’s so much to consider, so many different responsibilities. But when you’re a caregiver for someone you love, it’s not a responsibility. It’s an honor to be part of their healing journey, and you would do anything and everything to help them get better.
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