At 17 years old, Melissa was applying to colleges and universities, trying to figure out a career path, and gearing up to take her final exams when her mother was diagnosed with stage three inflammatory breast cancer. According to the Canadian Cancer Society this “develops when cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast” causing it to become red and swollen.
Her mother’s diagnosis was the beginning of Melissa’s new role as a young caregiver. Although, at the time, she didn’t know that this was the case.
In this article, Melissa shares three recommendations for being a young family caregiver:
- Learn about the condition
- Don’t hide your feelings
- Find a support system
Learn about the condition
Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include:
- A swollen breast that may feel warm to the touch
- A nipple that inverts or points inward
- Tenderness or pain in the breast
Melissa’s mom dealt with these symptoms for a week. She went to the emergency room where she immediately underwent surgery after being assessed by a doctor. She stayed in the hospital for several days before an oncologist gave her the diagnosis.
“I didn’t hear anything after the word ‘cancer’,” Melissa said, recounting the moment her mom broke the news to the family. “Even now, it’s hard to remember exactly what she said or what happened after. It’s not really something I want to remember.”
It was important for Melissa to learn more about breast cancer in order to prepare for what she and her family would be up against.
Melissa also went with her parents to the hospital orientation where the nurse explained the chemotherapy schedule, what they could expect after the first few treatments, and how Melissa and her dad could support her mom during this time.
Doing her own research and going to the orientation helped Melissa feel a little bit more in control of a situation that was very much out of her control.
“Having been briefed by her health care team on what to expect in the months ahead helped my dad and I better support my mom through her mastectomy, 16 sessions of chemotherapy, and weeks of daily radiation therapy. Knowing what to expect helped me see the light at the end of a very long tunnel.”
Don’t hide your feelings
Being a young caregiver was difficult for Melissa. She describes the next couple of years as exhausting, lonely, and tiring.
While her mom was in the midst of her cancer battle, Melissa was struggling with her own challenges: adjusting to and finding her way around her university while also being a young caregiver.
She attended a local university. This allowed her to live at home and care for her mom when she wasn’t commuting to and from school. She rode the bus for two hours every morning and every afternoon. Taking naps on the bus, during lectures, and in the library in between classes became her way of dealing with the fatigue that was setting in.
“I couldn’t keep up with all of the adjustments I had to make in my home and school life and I think it manifested as fatigue,” Melissa said. “I also wasn’t prepared for how socially isolated I would feel in university. In high school, I was used to sitting with my friends during lunch or seeing them in the hallways on my way to class so I was never lonely. In university, I hardly ever ran into someone I knew from high school. But, maybe I deliberately stayed away from them as well.”
The fatigue, loneliness, and stress that came with starting university and being a family caregiver took its toll on Melissa’s physical and mental health in her third year of school.
Her mom had finished her cancer treatments and was back to being her old self but Melissa was barely making it through the day. Her grades were beginning to suffer and her social life was practically non-existent. It was as if all of the stress that had built up over the past couple of years while being a caregiver was finally beginning to catch up with her.
“I wish I spoke to someone about what I was feeling at the time, especially my mom,” Melissa said. “But I didn’t want her worrying about me on top of everything else she was going through. I wanted her to focus on getting well, rather than focusing on how I was doing.”
Over time, Melissa was able to turn things around after developing a new outlook on her caregiving situation.
“I think it really helped me to see how my mom never lost her faith, hope, and strength during her cancer treatment. My own challenges seemed to pale in comparison to what she had just gone through, so I dusted myself off and began the process of reclaiming my life.”
Find a support system
Melissa’s experience as a young family caregiver highlights the need for a strong caregiver support system. A network of people you trust can help you:
- Unload the emotional baggage that can build up over time
- Carry some of the load of providing day-to-day care
- Get respite from your caregiving role to address your own well-being
See our Elizz article on Self Care for Cargivers: Remember to take care of yourself.
No matter your age, being a caregiver can be emotionally and physically draining, especially if, like Melissa, you’re experiencing many of life’s changes and transitions at the same time.
“Don’t wait until you’re feeling so overwhelmed in your caregiving before asking for help from your family and friends, a health care professional, coworkers, or even a religious or spiritual advisor. Research local programs and services that can provide some hands-on caregiving for the tasks you can’t handle,” Melissa advises. “Caregiving can be such a lonely road and no one should have to walk it alone.”