Helping cancer-patient caregivers cope

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: April 5th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

When a family member is battling terminal cancer, the ordeal can be as traumatic for the caregiver as it is for the patient. But neither has to go through it alone.

The benefits of hospice care for patients near the end of life are well-known. New research, though, shows that caregivers of cancer patients dying at home can also benefit from coping skills training, in which hospice nurses teach them problem-solving methods of managing distressing patient symptoms.

More than fifty-million Americans assist family members with an illness or disability, including many who provide extensive care for relatives with cancer. Previous studies have shown highly stressed family caregivers are at greater risk for depression, health problems and death.

Findings from the new, federally funded study appeared recently in Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society. Participants consisted of more than three-hundred family caregivers of hospice patients with advanced cancer.

Besides providing standard hospice care, nurses taught caregivers how to better assess and manage specific cancer symptoms such as pain, constipation and difficulty breathing. This group was compared with caregivers of patients receiving hospice care alone, and with caregivers of patients receiving hospice care and additional emotional support.

The researchers, from the University of South Florida, found that with coping skills training, caregivers’ quality of life improved. And the burden and distress from caregiving declined significantly, helping bring a measure of peace to a process known all too often for its physical and emotional toll.