Finding a Path Forward as a Cancer Caregiver

October 11, 2019

Editor's NoteThis is part of Nancy's Caregiving series. Please see other posts in this series.

I married a high school crush, a wavy-haired, green-eyed former drummer with a passion for golf, business, donuts, and jokes. Brett was kind, loyal, and loving—everything I wanted in a husband—and we were excited to be living and working in Manhattan. This was 1993. We had a busy social life and just enough disposable income to enjoy the occasional Broadway show and thriving restaurant scene.  Our families lived in neighboring towns in Connecticut, which meant going home for weekends and holidays was festive and familiar. Life as a young bride was full of hope.

Four years into our married lives, Brett started to hiccup and burp. It was funny at first, until he couldn’t stop. Eight months of worsening symptoms that included dizziness, vomiting, weight loss and headaches finally led to a devastating diagnosis—medulloblastoma, a brain tumor that typically affects children ages five and under. Brett was 32.

I was 30 and was convinced life had ended before it ever really began. It would take time to absorb the shock of Brett’s cancer diagnosis and the multi-layered implications of becoming a cancer caregiver.

In so many ways we were lucky. Brett received top-notch cancer care. While there were no protocols or statistics for adults with medullas, a percentage of children with them survived. We had health insurance and Brett was able to take the time he needed away from work. I had started my own public relations business working from home, which gave me the flexibility I needed to care for Brett. So many friends and colleagues and loving family members offered support.

Even so, I did not feel lucky. I felt depressed and overwhelmed. Brett had a roadmap to treat his cancer, but for me as his primary caregiver, I longed for that kind of blueprint to help me navigate this cancer journey.

In the role of a cancer caregiver, I was working most days, accompanying Brett to medical appointments, cooking meals, and seeing friends when possible. I was a shell of who I was, and some days I barely recognized myself. It took a few more years of processing and distilling all that had happened until I made sense of it all. Life hadn’t actually ended, who I was had.

Despite the chaos and anxiety, there were three things that helped boost my emotional health and resilience in the months after Brett’s cancer diagnosis, providing a road map per se during those early days. Here's what I learned:


Take a Day for Yourself

The logistical and physical demands of coping with a loved one’s diagnosis often overshadow the real need to simply take a day to ourselves. Unplug. Get under the covers. Take a walk. Go to an afternoon matinee. Do what you must to recharge.


Reframe the Urgent

Cancer begs a certain urgency but there’s a danger in letting this become the new norm. Let go of all that is unnecessary. Living in a state of constant urgency is exhausting. Learn to differentiate the important from the urgent.


Lean into a Community

High-achieving, self-directed individuals sometimes have trouble asking for help. We think we should be able to handle everything ourselves.  Cancer is a mighty foe that demands we lean on others for support.


Coping with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis is a path laden with hurdles. The demands are numerous and ever-changing, but caregivers can forge resilient paths forward.