When you envision a “typical” caregiver, who pops into your brain? Before becoming a cancer caregiver, myself, I always thought of caregivers looking just like my parents. They were middle aged individuals, nearing or enjoying retirement, giving caring to their aging parents and relatives, while still providing care and offering support to their children. But, what happens when you don’t fit the “typical” mold of a caregiver? Facing a cancer diagnosis with someone you love, especially a parent, is difficult at any age. However, when you are still a young adult, it can bring about even more complex challenges. Where do you even begin to tackle the challenges that young cancer caregivers face?
Your Loved One Has Cancer
Becoming a cancer caregiver at any age can feel like being dropped off in the middle of a forest, with no map, no compass, or supplies. It can feel overwhelming, highly demanding (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), logistically challenging and burdensome, and downright lonely and isolating.
And that just barely scratches the surface. Am I right?
Learning about a cancer diagnosis, how to navigate the healthcare system, how to best advocate for your loved one while trying to learn and adapt to providing actual physical care is time consuming, HARD work. Oh, by the way…that doesn’t even include your own personal responsibilities; like taking care of your own family, going to school or your job or taking care of yourself!
Don’t get me wrong, the sacrifices are worth making! But, that doesn’t mean it is an easy feat to take on. Becoming a cancer caregiver is a privilege and one that I personally find great joy and fulfillment in. However, if I’m honest, the caregiver role is riddled with constant tension between competing roles and responsibilities. There never seems to be enough of us to go around.
A Young Adult World
Young adulthood is a dynamic time in the life of young adults. We are often busy trying to find our way and place in the world, while searching for people to share our lives with. This is a significant time of growth, change and development. We are figuring out who we are and what we want out of life. We are chasing goals, dreaming big dreams, falling in love, starting families and then…BOOM! The atomic cancer bomb strikes!
Didn’t cancer get the memo that we are on the brink of trying to change the world?
Unfortunately, cancer could care less! It does not discriminate and is NEVER convenient!
What Are the Challenges That Young Cancer Caregivers Face
Young Adult Cancer Caregivers are Often Still In School
Depending on your age, it is a very real possibility that you are in the middle of attending classes to pursue a higher education degree. Being in college or professional school is demanding and time consuming enough, without adding on an extra layer of cancer caregiving. There are classes to attend, papers to write, projects to research, and tests to study for! When I was in college and graduate school, taking care of myself and my school work often felt near impossible. I was fortunate that my caregiving responsibilities came after graduation. Being in school often presents some serious logistical challenges that are hard to face and challenging to reconcile.
Young Adult Cancer Caregivers Have New Careers
During this phase of life, many young adults are beginning new careers or do not have a significant amount of time invested with their employer. This often means that the young caregiver is not financially well established, is working full time hours and has limited paid time off. All of these factors affect the ability and availability to offer care to their loved ones, without significant hardship.
Young Adult Cancer Caregivers Have New, Young Families
When I first became a caregiver, I was 29 years old. My healthy, 35-year-old husband found out very unexpectedly that he needed emergent open-heart surgery. At the time, we had two children under the age of two years old. Talk about ROUGH TIMES. I could hardly wrap my mind around the reality of the open-heart surgery, much less all the logistical factors and demands of our new reality as a new, young family. I had two children that were completely dependent upon me for all aspects of their little lives and now I had a husband who desperately needed me as his life literally depended on this surgery.
The stress that weighs on young adult caregivers is real, misunderstood and often overlooked. Trying to juggle the needs of a young family, with the responsibilities of cancer caregiving is a heart wrenchingly difficult tight rope to walk. I personally entered the realities of that world in 2014, when my mom was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Brain Cancer. As an only child, wife and mother of two, I felt the enormity of the weight of our new reality on my shoulders.
Young Adult Cancer Caregivers Lack Experience
As young adults, we are just getting our feet wet with real world responsibilities. For so many years, our needs were being met without giving a second thought to how. Our parents paid our bills, scheduled our appointments, managed our calendars, coached us through difficult circumstances and were often our voice during times of trouble. What happens when the roles are reversed, and our parents are depending on us to help them navigate this new world of cancer and they desperately need us to be their voice in a loud, confusing, complex health care environment. We are certainly not born, raised, or professionally trained at an early age to navigate a cancer diagnosis.
Young Adult Cancer Caregivers Are Not Taken Seriously
Unfortunately, ageism does exist, especially in professional realms. Becoming a young adult cancer caregiver is often complicated by the fact our young age often “disqualifies” us in the eyes of onlooking health care professionals or we face an uphill battle to be taken seriously. Personally, I feel I had to work extra hard to “prove” myself in the early days of the caregiving process to show them I was a “real” advocate for my mom; that was to be respected, communicated with and taken seriously.
Young Adult Cancer Caregivers Have Difficulty Fitting In With Peer Group
This has probably been one of the hardest realities for me to face personally, as a relatively “young” cancer caregiver. Many well-intentioned friends have difficulty truly understanding and relating to me during this season of our lives. It’s not their fault. Please hear my heart, I am overjoyed that they can’t relate to living a life affected by cancer. But sometimes, it makes relationships hard. Not because friends don’t care about you; it is just difficult to know what to do or what to say sometimes. I get it!
In addition, my calendar is not always as open or as flexible for social gatherings and outings. There are times where I might have to “disappear” for long periods of time because certain seasons of treatment might be more demanding. Cancer can be lonely and cancer caregiving can be incredibly isolating. When you are a young adult cancer caregiver, your peers are in a busy season of life as well. Everyone has life to juggle and sometimes your seasons of life do not perfectly align with others. It is no one’s fault really. This is just one of the hard realities that young adult cancer caregivers face.
The Challenges Are Real But You Can Do It
Becoming a young adult cancer caregiver was never something I ever envisioned would become part of my reality. However, life has a way of happening when we least expect it to. The last several years have been challenging. I’m not going to lie, there are many days, even years later, when I wonder how in the world I’m going to make it through. But, I do. And you will too.
The number of young adult cancer caregivers is on the rise. These challenges are not going away and in some ways, are probably becoming more complex. I say these things not to be a “Debbie Downer” but to call it out for what it is because I don’t think we talk about it enough. I am passionate about empowering, educating and encouraging young caregivers. It is my desire to help you find your voice. I’m here to come alongside you, to take your hand, to help you navigate these challenges in tandem with Christ and community. You are not alone. I know you might feel lonely but please take heart and know that you are loved and I believe in you.
Cancer caregiving can take on a life and existence all its own. But, the first step in tackling these caregiving challenges is recognizing that they exist and they aren’t going away.
We PRAY & PEDAL ON TOGETHER and will tackle these challenges one pedal rotation at a time!