Focusing on healing one condition is tough enough, but two? This can feel about as hard and confusing to the caregiver as it is to the patient.
For example, dealing with cancer combined with dementia can present a host of conflicts, complications and questions. Unfortunately for the patient, recent research by the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL indicates a dramatic difference in the life expectancy between patients with cancer alone and those with cancer combined with dementia. People with both cancer and dementia die much sooner than those with cancer alone. The accounts for this are unclear and speculative. One explanation is that there’s often an uncertainty with diagnosing and treating dementia in the first place and symptoms of dementia often mask other ailments. It could also be that people with dementia simply aren’t given cancer screenings as often they could and therefore the cancer goes undetected or untreated altogether. Somehow, the dementia can enable medical professionals to miss the cancer.
For the caregiver, this presents added challenges. Under these circumstances, care includes becoming an advocate for the patient by staying on top of doctors and making sure check-ups are handled regularly and thoroughly and that proper treatments are administered. Since the patient may not be able to speak for themselves or make their symptoms clearly known, caregivers are on heightened alert to spot signs of trouble and to speak on behalf of their loved ones. Of course, this leads to added stress for the caregiver. What to do?
Author and caregiver advocate, Linda Burhans laments that there’s not much out there by way of information on how to deal with cancer coupled with dementia. So she suggests that caregivers seek out and get involved in a support group, either online or in person. The idea of having a sounding board or just knowing that you’re not alone can be invaluable enough. But researchers from the University of Michigan School of Nursing found there’s more to it. Their 2012 study revealed that caregivers are more likely to have reduced stress, improved sleep, better immune function and overall physical health by being involved in an established caregiver support organization. To a larger extent, so-called “caregiver interventions” can also arm the caregiver with valuable coping skills, knowledge and a better quality of life, overall. This kind of empowerment likely results in better care of the patient and ultimately in their improved physical and mental health.
These findings are supported by the NYU Langone Medical Center, which found that support groups reduce a caregiver’s depression level, while at the same time increase their ability to react effectively to problems. Social groups, where one could gain information, learn how to recognize warning signs and manage expectations, talk to doctors, practice nursing skills, learn new ways of handling tasks, and receive feedback are most meaningful. It improves a caregiver’s self-esteem and can also help during time of bereavement. The support a caregiver receives, in effect, makes them more resilient.
Researchers agree that more standards of care protocol need to be implemented when it comes to dealing with dementia paired with cancer. As medicine advances to where we keep getting older and older, it stands to reason that more of the elderly will unfortunately suffer through both cancer and dementia together. If there’s a lack of understanding of how to deal with this now, we can hope that caregivers will have a blueprint in the future. For now, find help and strength in the form of support groups, spiritual wellness groups, friends and online resources that deal with one condition or the other (such as The American Cancer Society and Alzheimer’s Foundation of America) and stay informed on the latest treatments available. It is within every person’s right and dignity to seek and receive the best care possible. Every patient deserves it. And so do you.
For Alzheimer’s, Detection Advances Outpace Treatment Options, New York Times
Resources for Seniors Suffering from Dementia and Cancer, eCareDiary.com
Behavioral and Psychosocial Interventions for Family Caregivers, American Journal of Nursing
Psychosocial Care for Family Caregivers of Patients With Cancer, Journal of Clinical Oncology
Palliative care in dementia: issues and evidence, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment