Four Lessons from a Cancer Caregiver

By Patrick Palmer

In June 2001, my wife, Angela Palmer, was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer while we were living in Tucson, Arizona. This was a huge shock. She had annual mammograms and never had any indications of disease.

Patrick and Angela Palmer
Angela and Patrick Palmer

She had a lumpectomy and completed about 50 percent of her chemotherapy protocol before we moved to the northeast where our family was located. We arrived in Boston in December 2001, bought a house and became engaged with a tremendous Dana-Farber team including Wendy Chen, MD, MPH, medical oncologist and Jennifer Bellon, MD, radiation oncologist. Angela immediately resumed her therapy and I became her caregiver.

During this period, I depended on a lot of different people for emotional and spiritual support. Meanwhile, I became the principal support mechanism for our four children. This emotional give and take could have taken a huge toll on me, but, with the assistance of Dana-Farber professionals and friends, we all made it through. Within 18 months, Angela had beaten breast cancer.

Then in September 2011, after experiencing various symptoms of nausea, rapid heart rate, and headaches, Angela was diagnosed with stage IV glioblastoma multi forme, an aggressive type of brain cancer. This was not a metastasized breast cancer but a brand new primary cancer. Angela underwent two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation before starting on a therapy of Avastin. Over the next 15 months, she lived a fairly “normal” life. In fact, Patrick Wen, MD, director of the Center for Neuro-Oncology, and his associate and our primary oncologist Eudocia Lee, MD, recommended her to apply for her driver’s license and resume playing golf.

But after about 15 months on Avastin, Angela started showing signs of toxicity. She suffered three small strokes in June 2013 and returning to Avastin is no longer an option. Now, Angela has joined a revolutionary clinical trial that will target a genetic mutation and maybe, just maybe, she will be cured.

As the primary caregiver, I have been challenged to not only care for Angela, but also ride the emotional roller coaster once again. The roles and responsibilities of a caregiver depend on the type of cancer, but there are a few important things I’ve learned:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – It’s not a sign of weakness. If you can, get a caregiver who can help you care for your loved one or assist with work around the house. Having an extra person on hand allows me to shop for groceries, do laundry and other tasks around the house. The social workers at Dana-Farber can recommend health care companies that can provide this service.
  • Make time for yourself – Sometimes you need to get away from the situation and take some time for yourself to relieve stress. Recently, my daughter came in to watch Angela while I took a day for myself in Maine. It was 24 hours where I could do a little fishing, some boating, and just be able to separate myself from the tension of the situation.
  • Don’t spread yourself thin – Something has to give eventually. Recently, I’ve had to take a leave of absence from my job, allowing me to give 100 percent of my time to Angela. It’s a hard decision to make, but you have to keep in mind the relationship you have with the person you’re caring for. Angela and I have been married 30 years, and you just don’t put that on a shelf.
  • Most of all, remember family is important  – Family and friends will help you get through something like this. Fortunately, many of the supporters who helped us through Angela’s breast cancer battle are back, offering their friendship and support.

For all those caregivers out there: don’t give up. Dana-Farber is moving mountains to find cures for all the cancers that have been identified. What is important is that you find outlets to relieve your stress, find ways to comfort your family, and ensure that you take care of your own health.