Caring for a Loved One With Metastatic Breast Cancer

Very few people experience breast cancer alone. Breast cancer is a family disease, and each person is affected in different ways. There is much we could share about family life with metastatic breast cancer, but let’s talk about a concern that is too often neglected: family cancer caregivers.

Woman comforting her friend

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Caring for a Loved One

Caring for a loved one with metastatic cancer is likely one of the most loving things you will ever do. You will probably look back on these days with a sense of nostalgia for years to come, forgetting the times when emotions run wild. Yet now, you may feel emotionally torn and exhausted.

You’ll likely hear any number of people remind you to take good care of yourself, and chances are you will (probably silently) say “yeah right” in a sarcastic tone. The words are so much easier to speak than follow.

What many people don’t realize—right away, at least—is that foregoing your own needs can come back and bite you. Not only can failing to care for yourself result in ill health and a reduced ability to care for your loved one but can lay down the roots for emotions even more powerful: resentment and bitterness.

If you are the loved one of someone with metastatic breast cancer, we know that you are frightened and hurting as well. We’ve heard from people with advanced cancer who believe that the experience is harder on their loved ones than themselves, and that may often be true. At least when you are living with cancer yourself you are “doing something”—whether that means receiving treatments or coping with the symptoms of cancer. For loved ones, in contrast, there can be an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

We all want to do something to help those we love. Yet when it comes to metastatic breast cancer, we are so restricted. We can’t take away our loved one's pain. We can’t receive the treatments. We can’t even make the decisions about treatment options.

On top of all of this, you may need to honor your loved one by supporting their decision to weave a path through treatment that would not be your ideal choice. If there is a true measure of love, this may be one test. How can you fully encourage a loved one who is pursuing a direction you wouldn’t pursue yourself? Let’s talk about what has helped others care for a loved one with metastatic breast cancer.

Tips for Caregivers

  • Take care of yourself. We know you’ve heard this before, but let this thought penetrate deeply. You need to take care of yourself not only because your own health and well-being are important, but because the only way that you can care for your loved one to the best of your ability is if you are properly fed and rested. If you are struggling with this, consider what you would want if the tables were reversed. Would you want your loved one to be as healthy as possible?
  • Don’t go it alone. It truly takes a village to support someone living with metastatic breast cancer. If you are someone who likes to be strong and manage problems yourself, you may need to learn to let go of some of that control. Perhaps another friend is not as good of a cook, not as good of a listener, or doesn’t understand your loved one’s needs as well. Learn to allow others to help even if that help is a bit below your standards.
  • Add humor to a humorless situation. Those who have said humor is the best medicine have probably been around someone with metastatic breast cancer. A touch of humor can bring needed relief to even the direst situations. There is truly a time to laugh and a time to mourn.
  • Maintain your boundaries. It’s well known that family caregivers of people with cancer can burn out. You need to know when to say no or that someone else needs to perform a task instead of you. It’s easy to push past these boundaries and selflessly try to do everything, but don’t. Too often a sense of wanting to love as much as possible turns into a sense of resentment and bitterness. If you feel you are giving beyond your abilities or sacrificing your own well-being, find another option.

Addressing End of Life

If it is your loved one coping with metastatic breast cancer, you have a double challenge. While you are trying to be the support system for your loved one, you are left coping with your own feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, and frustration, alone.

Anticipatory grief occurs for loved ones as much or even more, and can feel like a dark, murky, forest. You may feel guilty for suffering your feelings of loss while your loved one is still near you and very much alive.

There is much we could share with loved ones in coping with the end of life concerns, but one very important issue—though seldom talked about—is near death awareness.

Near the end of life, it is common for people who are dying to begin to share stories, such as seeing those who have died before or speaking of being in another place. It is as if your loved one has one foot in this world and the other foot in another world.

We don’t know what this means, but we do know what is comforting for those who are dying. If your loved one is talking about seeing those who have died before, don’t correct them. Don’t tell them they're hallucinating. Many people become agitated if their family does not appear to believe them. Simply listen without correcting and offer your reassurance that you are there and love them. For those who have time, you may find comfort in reading a book written by hospice nurses about these last moments. The book is Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying.

When your loved one passes, give yourself time to grieve. You’re likely to hear many platitudes, but there is no right way to grieve. Some people find solace and comfort in reading a book such as Janis Amatuzio’s Forever Ours. These stories written by a forensic pathologist, remind us that those we’ve lost may not be as far away as we think.

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