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Cancer taking a heavy toll on caregivers

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 12/12/06



Frances Hornback rushed her husband to the emergency room in June after he began coughing up blood. It was only then, 18 months after her husband first began having respiratory problems, that he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

About a week later, the couple was back in the ER. But this time, it was Frances who was ill.

Frances Hornback, from Carson, Calif., had been overwhelmed with fear, crying uncontrollably and unable to function. Desperate for relief, she swallowed half an anti-anxiety pill that had been prescribed for her husband. She immediately developed a dangerous reaction to the drug and became dizzy and began hyperventilating.

Experts say that Hornback's distress is all too common. Although the caregivers of cancer patients bear a heavy burden, they often suffer in silence, says Jimmie Holland, a psychiatrist at New York's Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

In a recent USA TODAY/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health poll of cancer survivors and their families, one-third of respondents said cancer caused someone in the household to have emotional or psychological problems.

New research suggests caring for patients with cancer is as stressful as looking after someone with Alzheimer's. In an unpublished study of more than 1,200 caregivers presented at a meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in March, Youngmee Kim of the American Cancer Society found severe psychological stress in 67 percent of those caring for cancer patients and 64 percent of the caregivers of Alzheimer's patients.

Increasing workload

Few people appreciate how much the workload of cancer caregivers has increased in recent years, Holland says.

Hospitals today discharge cancer patients "sicker and quicker," often sending them home when they are in great pain or before their wounds have healed, Holland says. That can leave untrained caregivers to provide services once handled by experienced nurses, such as giving pain medication and hooking up intravenous antibiotics.

Melvina McCree of Conway, S.C., became infected with a flesh-eating bacteria after having a mastectomy in 2002. Doctors operated seven times to cut away dead tissue. McCree, 62, finally left the hospital after seven months — still with painful open wounds — and moved in with her daughter, a single mother of three.

Although a nurse visited regularly, she was reluctant to return in the middle of the night, when McCree often suffered the most. A machine designed to suction fluid from her wounds often malfunctioned, setting off an alarm that unnerved everyone in the house, says McCree's daughter, Sharon Funnye.

"I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown," says Funnye, 42. "I love my mother and I would do anything I had to do. But you are unwell, and you get angry at times, and you feel guilty."

Even Funnye's youngest child, Shantell, started to worry. The girl, then 5, didn't want to go to day care for fear of leaving her grandmother home alone.

Financial toll

Funnye often missed work to care for her mother. Medical bills added up. Funnye and her mother fell behind on their mortgage payments, and both lost their houses.

Caregivers such as Funnye clearly need help, says Laurel Northouse, director of the socio-behavioral program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Her research shows that cancer patients and caregivers who have therapy sessions with trained nurses tend to cope better than those who receive their usual care. Patients feel less hopeless and more optimistic about their disease; families also have more positive attitudes about taking care of their sick relative.

Programs such as these can be costly. Northouse received $2 million to develop and test the programs. Her current study will measure whether counseling can save money by keeping patients and caregivers healthy

Copyright © 2006 Asbury Park Press. All rights reserved.

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Thanks for re-warning those of us caretakers out here. Not too many "outside" people realize the toll it takes on those who are caregivers.

Tony and I were just having a heart-to-heart the other day on how very blessed we feel that we had arrived at a "financially convenient" time for him to become ill. :? (I know -- sounds strange!) We hold those who struggle financially through illness, deep in our hearts.

As usual Randy, you are right on top of things to post! Thanks again.


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