Lessons of the Caregiver

Through the many years I served as a cancer caregiver for my parents and, finally, my wife, I've learned a great deal about life, death, and the aftermath of cancer.

Unexpected lessons learned as a cancer caregiver

I'm no cancer expert, but I can't help but retain certain lessons as these experiences come and go.

As caregivers, we learn how to manage medical appointments, numerous prescriptions, complex terminology, home nursing care, restricted diets, and all of the physical demands that advanced breast cancer brings. But there's so much more to being a caregiver, things I didn't anticipate when I first set out on this road in 1992.

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Learning to regulate others' emotions

As a caregiver, I quickly learned how to act as the "emotional thermostat" in the home. The last thing any person with a terminal condition needs is unnecessary drama. Our 20-something-year-old daughters weren't always happy with me when I asked them to tone down the drama between them whenever they visited us, but I held my ground.

"Policing the peace" was a pretty thankless job, but oh well. As for my parents, I sheltered my dad from my mom and my mom from herself. In total, I spent 11 years caring for my parents, each in their own turn.

Learning to keep things simple

Cancer brings with it all sorts of complications. Why exacerbate these? The first change I learned to live with was the clutter of medical equipment.

Once upon a time, my home looked like something from the old Victoria magazine, with lace, dried flowers, silver platters, and crystal vases. After breast cancer came to stay, all that made way for medical appliances, supplies, and pharmaceutical bins.

After I streamlined things, I liked the simplicity (and the ease of dusting!) and decorated my home to reflect my new aesthetic. I'm not a minimalist, but learning to keep things simple helped calm my anxiety about being a caregiver.

Learning to be gentle with myself and others

Through the years, one of the most important things I've learned is to treat myself gently and those I've cared for. I've never been rowdy, but I have had a remarkable amount of energy and charisma. When called upon to be a caregiver, I learned to tone things down when it became necessary to do so.

Having spent my life in show business, toning it down wasn't always easy because my inner switch was always set to "on." Fortunately, advanced breast cancer entered my life when I was ready to shift into the slow lane a bit anyway, and through this, I began treating myself with gentleness as well as my loved ones.

Learning to be present

"One day at a time" is a phrase we all know, but it holds an all-important lesson. Outside of appointments and other necessary activities, I made as few plans as possible, not just on a daily basis, but in the long term as well.

My wife and I naturally adopted the mindful attitude of "be here now" early in her illness. I was, in fact, surprised at how easily we embraced being present. For years, we dreamed so many visions for our future. It wasn't an attitude we worked for; we just fell into it.

It may sound trite, but I think learning to take one day at a time is the greatest of all the lessons. And it's one I still live by, filling my life as a widow with peace.

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