Did you know that October is Cancer Awareness month? With this in mind, at Caregiver Support Services, we have decided to put together a guide that will teach you the basics of cancer, how you can prevent it and how you can cope if a loved one has cancer.

What is cancer?

Although cancer has become a common disease, there is still a lot of misconception out there about what it is exactly. In a nutshell, cancer is a condition whereby certain, problematic cells in a specific part of your body begin to grow and multiply in an uncontrollable way. These cells are known as cancer cells and, if left unchecked, they can invade other healthy areas of your body and destroy the healthy tissue surrounding them, and negatively affecting your organs.

Cancer often starts to grow in one part of your body, but if you do not receive adequate treatment, it can soon spread to other areas. When this happens, it is known as metastasis. There are more than 200 types of cancer, but the good news is that research is continuously being done around them in order to find better treatments, and hopefully one day, a cure. The most common kinds of cancer are skin cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, cancer of the kidney/s, bladder cancer, and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

How can I prevent cancer?

As a disease, cancer can sound very scary but the good news is that if you go for regular cancer screenings, you should be able to pick up most kinds of cancers early on and have the best possible chance of overcoming it.

In addition to regular screenings, it is particularly important to lead a healthy lifestyle involving eating plenty of lean proteins, wholegrain carbs, high fiber foods, fruit and vegetables. This can boost your immune system and help prevent obesity, which is linked to many cancers.

Drinking more alcohol than the recommended daily limit can also put you at greater risk of getting cancer, especially cancer of the liver, colon, rectum and breast. Men should have no more than 2 alcohol units per day, and women no more than 1.

Exercising regularly and keeping your weight in the healthy range is also crucial and can significantly decrease your risk of contracting cancer.

If you smoke, now is the perfect time to give it up. Quitting smoking can be very difficult, but it will be well worth it in the long run because it greatly reduces your chances of developing cancers, such as, throat, lung, mouth, breast, colorectal, cervical, bladder and esophageal.

If there is only one thing you do to help prevent yourself from getting cancer, stopping smoking should be it. Did you know that around 90% of all lung cancers are directly related to smoking? Being exposed to second-hand smoke is also very dangerous and we recommend avoiding it as much as possible.

Exposure to too much sun can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. It is therefore vital to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays by wearing sun screen year round and avoiding the midday sun where possible.

Practicing safe sex is another great step you can take towards cancer prevention. Several strains of the Human Papillomavirus (or HPV) can be spread through sex. Certain strains of HPV are known to cause many kinds of cancer.

In addition, the Hepatitis B virus (or HBV) can also be contracted through unprotected sex and this puts the individual at risk for developing long-term and serious liver infections which could lead to liver cancer.

If possible, speak to your doctor about being immunized against HPV and the Hepatitis B virus.

Knowing your family history is also important, and if someone in your family has had cancer, you should be extra careful.

What Symptoms should I look for?

 In addition to living a healthy lifestyle and having regular screenings, if you know the signs of cancer, you could have it detected sooner. Look out for any changes in your bowel or bladder habits and any unusual bleeding or discharge. Sores that do not heal and new and changing warts or moles are also concerning signs. If you have a lump or thickening, in your throat check it out with your doctor. Difficulty swallowing and a nagging cough are also symptoms that might require follow up.

How would I cope if I must care for a loved one with cancer?

If a loved one or friend has been diagnosed with cancer, you may be feeling powerless to help them as you cannot take the cancer away. This is completely normal, and it is important to try and learn as much as you can about your loved one’s cancer so that you can better support them. Remember that your loved one may have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatments, and this can leave them feeling nauseous, tired, and weak. You can help them by doing chores for them, cooking meals, and taking them to appointments. Your loved one may also be going through a difficult time emotionally with having to cope with their diagnosis, so be prepared for them to be angry, sad, depressed, and anxious. The best thing you can do for your loved one is to continue to be there for them and to let them know that you are there to help with whatever they need.

Advice for Caregivers

Learn as much about your loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Being educated about the disease can make you feel more in control and comfortable with role changes. Do not be shy to ask questions. Ask all necessary questions during doctor’s appointments.

Take proper care of yourself. Quoting flight attendants “You must wear your oxygen mask before helping another put theirs on.” This philosophy also stands for caregiving. If you are distressed emotionally, spiritually or physically unhealthy, you will not be able to effectively help your loved one.

Live healthy. Your ability and capability of helping others will be verified by practicing healthy living. Eat a healthy balanced diet, exercise regularly, do what interests you and get enough rest.

Stay social. One powerful tool in this aspect is connecting with someone with a similar situation. This is effective because you no longer feel isolated and experiences can be shared. Also, ensure your other important relationships (e.g., relationship with children, close friends, and family members) are maintained.

Ask for and accept assistance. Though it is difficult to ask for help from others, you need to understand that you need a break, and some people will be willing to help. You do not have to do it all, moreover, it is not healthy to try to do everything. The best way to avoid a breakdown is to accept help. Do not hesitate to ask for help.

Acknowledge your emotions. If you are feeling worthless, helpless, fearful, anxious, or sad, acknowledge these emotions. These are the normal reaction that may arise in your situation.

Openly express your feelings. Being a caregiver does not mean you should abandon your present or past relationships with other people. You are still a partner, spouse, child, etc., and with that comes the duties of expressing yourself openly and respectfully. If you encounter any difficulties, seek family or couples counseling. Your physician team will have a list of mental health or mediation professionals that are qualified to help you.

Promote the healthy independence of your loved ones. Assist your loved ones in becoming as independent as possible for as long as he or she can. This may include the use of devices or new technologies than can help them and ease your load.

Seek out for assistance. The following are three useful resources for caregivers caring for a loved one with a diagnosis of cancer:

“Ask Emma” Caregiver Wellness Tool https://emma.caregiversupportservices.com/index.asp

Help for Cancer Caregivers  https://www.helpforcancercaregivers.org/

Caregiver Family Leave Insurance Plan https://www.compassionsociety.com/