Cancer’s Legacy: Lifelong Roles Change in Surprising Ways

October 3, 2013 Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center

It hits us like a shot in the dark. We’re stunned by the news. Our loved one is diagnosed with cancer. The cancer patient’s life is changed overnight. But so is yours. You’ve taken on a new role yourself: caregiver.

You’re his mobility and facilitator, and a lot is hanging on your shoulders. You’re the caregiver. You serve as the driver to the clinic for medical appointments. You make sure medication is administered as prescribed. You cook meals and change clothing.

We like to believe the selfless, better part of our nature will take root and seamlessly allow us to take on the role of caregiver. But, in almost every case where our roles are so dramatically changed, this new reality is as soul-jarring and troubling to us as having cancer is to our loved one.

The Rev. Sam Scriven, senior chaplain at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, watches this drama play out every day. He leads the ministry’s efforts to help bring comfort and some sense of understanding to both patient and caregiver.

Caregivers Tell Their Story

Scriven leads the cancer caregiver support group at Providence St. Joseph. He says the group, above all, is a safe place for those who care for sick partners, relatives or friends. Those who take advantage of the support group can find others with which to commiserate, share stories or just vent about their collective sadness and frustration.

“We allow caregivers to tell their story,” Scriven says. “And that’s why most of them come to participate in the support group. They have a narrative that they want heard.”

Most revealing to caregivers is the realization that their roles have changed. Husband and wife become patient and caregiver. A man who has been the family pillar, breadwinner and bill payer is now overwhelmed with fighting cancer. His wife, who played a supportive but different role as married partner, is making critical decisions about family finances and shouldering most of the load around the house.

Defining New Roles

“The caregiver often is at a loss to define their new title,” Scriven says. “We work on that issue with support group attendees. That’s why sharing their story helps them get used to their new role. The more language they can put to it, the better.”

It’s an uncomfortable process, he believes. “Processing fear and grief is important. The way to do that is to develop language that provides meaning to the experience. When we have understanding, we have some control. When we have control, we feel like we can cope.”

His job as chaplain and leader of the cancer caregiver support group is to help discover that meaning.

“I’m in the business of ‘meaning making.’ My goal within the group is to create meaning with what seems to be a meaningless, senseless experience.”

Caregiver Support Group Services: Emotional and Practical

The cancer caregiver support group offers two primary services: emotional and communal support, and practical support.

“We work to provide emotional and spiritual support for the caregiver,” Scriven says. “But the practical support is a little more difficult because there isn’t a ton of community resources.”

Scriven says the elderly cancer patient often has the biggest need for logistical support: accessing transportation, meals and medications. The younger cancer patient finds the biggest need is financial. Many can’t afford to pay for both non-generic medications and their rent. Through the support group in Burbank, he is able to connect caregivers and families with area groups that can provide grant money.

Most encouraging is that cancer caregiver support groups operate in every part of the Providence care network. Our providers can direct you to support networks in your area similar to Scriven’s cancer caregiver support group. Whether you’re a caregiver to a loved one, or a family member or friend of a cancer patient, our support teams can help you cope during this stressful, uncharted period. Support strategies are available.

Learn more about caregiver support in your area:

Providence St. Joseph Medical Center (Burbank, California)
Providence Holy Cross Medical Center (Mission Hills, California)
Providence St. Patrick Hospital (Western Montana)
Providence Regional Cancer Center (Spokane and surrounding areas)
Kootenai Health (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and surrounding areas)
Providence Regional Cancer Partnership (Everett, Washington, and surrounding areas)


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