My caregiver journey began in Ontario, California as I was settling into my mid-twenties.
My mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer and I knew she needed me. I moved to Washington to be with her in 1999. In the time that followed, I became my mother’s primary caregiver during her battle with breast cancer. She beat cancer, but her ongoing medical conditions complicated her chemotherapy treatment. It was a short but tough battle.
I learned how strong the bond between a caregiver and an ill, loved one becomes during the treatment process.
Part of my Mom’s process was to write once a night about her experience with cancer and attend talk therapy sessions. Her ability to stay open during that time influenced me to start attending group therapy myself and it was there that I learned the value of communicating openly as a caregiver.
Little did I know how much this would influence me more than a decade later.
In 2009, I became the primary caregiver for my partner, Garrett, who was misdiagnosed with depression. Within months Garrett was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder but had no medical insurance to speak of. In the months that followed I leaned on the support from community organizations like NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) who validated my experience as a caregiver to someone whose illness carried a stigma. I flourished in NAMI and became a state trainer for their signature program for family members called Family to Family. Garrett benefited from the training too. Since then he’s taken charge of his condition and now lives and thrives with as much health and clarity as I’ve ever seen him. I’m proud to say that he is now a public speaker under NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program.
Tragedy struck in 2011, when my brother Michael was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Michael lived in North Carolina while I was still an at home caregiver for Garrett on the west coast. I quickly became the family research expert on Michael’s condition. The frequency of my visits increased significantly in the months that followed as I stepped in for Michael’s wife and took care of Michael during high dose chemotherapy sessions. In March of 2013 Garrett and I made the move to Durham, North Carolina to help Michael, his wife and four children.
Michael passed away six days later. It was devastating to lose him to cancer despite knowing he was no longer suffering.
In 2012, I founded the blog Thank You Cancer: Thriving Concepts for Caregivers which was a birthday gift to Michael. It explores the gifts and lessons we as caregivers can glean from our work, however difficult it may seem. I also now curate another blog, Wholesome Life Fitness, which focuses on mental health and healthy living.
I continue to help Garrett thrive, though it no longer feels like caregiving (he is working for the first time in six years).
I continue to push forward and give cancer caregivers the recognition and tools they need during their loved one’s cancer journey. Living in a town with a big hospital I see cancer patients and their families often. I continue to develop friendships with families at Duke Hospital’s stem cell transplant treatment center. I bring my dogs along to cheer up patients and their families whenever I can.
Sometimes these interludes are the greatest gifts I can offer a family who’s struggling.
In the months that follow I will share articles in my column for The Caregiver Space, entitled “New Frames of Mind,” and I will look at our mental approach to caregiving. I’ll explore how another’s condition affects us, how we deal with the stigmas and the self-consciousness that can come with this role.
Your mental health and well-being are important and I honor, and want to support, the road that follows for all of you.
by Amy Atkins, Thank You Cancer
Amy has been passionate about living a wholesome and healthy lifestyle since she was a child. She’s a vegetarian but not a vegan and loves Mexican food and soccer. She’s a mental health advocate and cancer care advocate loves her boyfriend and her two dogs. She has been a caregiver for loved ones and encourages other caregivers to practice self-care. Curator of Thank You Cancer and Wholesome Life Fitness. She’s new to North Carolina and is originally from Southern California.