THE BLOG

Ask Elizabeth: How Can I Support My Wife Who Has Cancer?

06/05/2013 05:22 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Natalie Strouth is a nurse with Saint Elizabeth and the information specialist behind Ask Elizabeth, a free caregiver support service. Saint Elizabeth, a home health care company, has been a trusted name in Canadian health care for more than a century and is a national, not-for-profit, charitable organization.

In her weekly column, Natalie answers your questions about caring for a family member or friend who needs extra support -- and caring for yourself as a caregiver.

Send your question to askelizabeth@saintelizabeth.com

Brad asks: My wife Karen was recently diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. After getting over the initial shock, we've told our friends and family. We want to help but Karen gets frustrated when any of us try to do things for her, with the kids or around the house. She mentioned wanting to join a support group, but I worry this will be depressing. I don't know how to be strong as the best husband, caregiver, and deal with my own fears about what's happening. Can anyone be a 'super caregiver'? Do you have any advice for me?

Your mixed emotions as Karen's husband, and now her caregiver, are completely normal and to be expected. You're trying your best to be supportive and strong when your wife needs you most, and not fall apart, despite your own fears. I won't overgeneralize, but there are some studies that find many male caregivers have a harder time asking for help, discussing their feelings, or talking about their caregiving situation at work. This is especially hard when appointments, caregiving responsibilities, and the inevitable bad days require time away from work.

Support is really a personal experience. Giving your wife the freedom and space to explore her feelings and how she is best going to manage them is really important. Sharing your feelings and listening may not come naturally. It is typically much easier to just try and "fix it." Switching the focus from fixing things to being there will take a lot of pressure off of yourself and help direct your energy.

Kim Gurowka, Saint Elizabeth Social Work Professional Practice Leader, encourages you to "stop focusing on being super -- just being there is what she needs."

You need to get support for yourself from family, friends and your health care team so that you can be there. Even though you may not see the value in joining a support group, it could be the perfect place for your wife to gain perspective, connect with others and share her feelings and experiences.

First and foremost, support groups give people a safe place to express their fears. This is more powerful that you may think. At first it might seem difficult to tell your story to a group, but there is something empowering about saying it out loud, and owning your own cancer journey. Listening to others and giving compassion and encouragement to people who know where you are coming from, and maybe even sharing a laugh, can be the best medicine some days.

Finding a support group that you like and that suits your personality may seem daunting at first, especially if you don't feel like much of a "joiner." The decision will be a personal one, but there is no doubt that this diagnosis will change both of you in different ways. Your wife might feel driven to find and connect with others like her, who are travelling the same road, and to research everything. However, I've also talked to people who don't yet know where they fit in their new patient world. There is nothing wrong with this.

Support groups are not all the same. Some people like the energy and connection of talking in person with a larger group. Others, like introverts who prefer more intimate conversations with one or two people, find great solace and people who lift them up through social media and online patient communities.

A support community, whether virtual or in person, can bring grace, inspiration, strength and comfort in ways you never imagined. If you or your wife are thinking about it, try it! If a support group doesn't work out, she doesn't have to continue. There are many options for creating a circle of support.

To help you in your caregiving role, ask health care providers many questions and learn all that you can about your wife's cancer, so that you can be a strong advocate. Tell your employer what is going on. Take time to care for yourself and watch for signs of caregiver burnout. You need to be in good health, both mentally and physically, to face the road ahead together.

The Canadian Cancer Society offers:

Online support through Cancer Connection.

One on One Support -- Connect by phone or in person to a cancer survivor or caregiver whose experience most closely resembles your own. Call 1-888-939-3333 or TTY 1-866-786-3934, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or email peersupport@ontario.cancer.ca.

To inquire about support groups and Living Well Beyond Cancer programs in your community, call 1-888-939-3333.

Above all, remember this...the secret in care for your wife is in caring for your wife.

Send your caregiving question to askelizabeth@saintelizabeth.com. Answers may appear in an upcoming weekly column. Ask Elizabeth does not offer legal guidance, nor does it answer questions about personal health issues.