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Caring for a Loved One with Cancer (video)

Oncology navigation nurse offers help tips for caregivers

Oncology navigation nurse offers help tips for caregivers

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you want to do all you can to support them. While their medical team takes care of their treatment needs, there are several steps you can take to help care for them not only physically, but emotionally as well.


In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Debbie Deseno, an oncology nurse navigator with Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center, about how caregivers can help their loved ones through the cancer journey.

How cancer caregivers can help

Understandably, being told they have cancer can be overwhelming for patients; for many, everything the doctor says after that seems like a blur. That’s why it can be so helpful for a family member or friend to accompany patients during those initial discussions with the physician.


“It’s a lot of information, and not something that’s easily retained,” says Deseno. “If you have a second set of ears, you can work together to confirm what each other heard and really have a better understanding of what’s going to happen next.”


As a caregiver, you also can help a patient sort through information and make a list of questions for the care team about treatment options, prognosis and what to expect in the months ahead. 


Once the treatment plan is underway, caregivers can continue to provide support and assistance in many ways.


For example, they can make sure patients are maintaining their nutrition. Some cancer treatments can cause a decrease in appetite, or patients may not have the energy to cook for themselves. Caregivers can prepare or bring small meals or drinks such as smoothies that may be easier to consume.


Another way caregivers can help is by coordinating transportation to and from appointments and offering to stay with patients afterward if needed. Some treatments, such as chemotherapy, may cause patients to feel nauseated or weak, and they appreciate the extra help.


Other ways to help may include:


  • Helping to arrange childcare, pet care, housekeeping and other services
  • Checking that medications are being taken properly and obtaining refills
  • Communicating with the physicians and nurses as needed for the patient
  • Working with social workers if financial assistance or other aid is needed

Oncology nurse navigators can help

As a nurse navigator, Deseno gets involved immediately after the cancer diagnosis to support both patients and their caregivers. Navigators help with scheduling consultations and treatments, and are available to guide caregivers who have questions or aren’t sure who to talk to.


“Caregivers often bring us information that we wouldn’t otherwise be made aware of,” says Deseno. “Perhaps the patient is struggling emotionally, isn’t really sleeping well or is having more pain than they’re admitting to. We can then act on it and develop a plan to meet those needs.”


A caregiver may also serve as a point of contact for friends and family. While some patients are comfortable talking about their treatments and progress, others may prefer to have a caregiver keep loved ones updated. Caregivers can help arrange visits and offer suggestions about how they can help support the patient.

Help for cancer caregivers

Caring for someone with cancer can be challenging and may feel overwhelming at times. Deseno says that while caregivers may want to do everything they can for the patient, it is important to ask for help when needed. Friends and family are often looking for ways to lend a hand, so delegating grocery shopping or running errands allows them to pitch in while freeing time for the primary caregiver.


Finally, caregivers have to care for themselves. For many, caregiving is a full-time role, and it can be easy to neglect their own health, which is not good for either caregiver or patient. As a caregiver, make an effort to eat healthy meals, exercise, take care of your medical and personal needs, and take mental health breaks. Again, friends and family may be able to step in for a day or two to give caregivers much-valued personal time.


“Caregivers really make a difference for patients,” says Deseno. “They have a partner that they’re going through this journey with, somebody that knows them and loves them and provides the emotional support that they need to keep moving forward in their treatment. And that’s priceless.”