WASHINGTON, DC—"On the day that changed my life, I heard the words, ‘Congratulations! It’s a girl!’ followed by, ‘Oh, no—this is advanced ovarian cancer," Joan Sommer, RN, recalled. "I kept thinking, Baby? Cancer? Baby? Cancer? How can this be?"
The cancer was discovered just after Ms. Sommer gave birth by caesarian section to her third child. The story of how she and her husband Joe Sommer have coped during the past 9 years (and 3 recurrences) was the centerpiece of a symposium on "Empowering the Caregiver."
"I knew that I might not wake up from the extensive debulking surgery," said Ms. Sommer, who is a rehabilitation nurse. "I woke up somewhere between postpartum, postoperative, and postmenopausal." She described the relief of getting out of the intensive care unit onto the oncology floor, "where they are used to cancer and know what to do to help."
The Sommers’ then had to deal with both a new baby and cancer. Ms. Sommers noted particularly "the incredible fatigue. There has to be a better word for the feeling when you get out of bed to go to the bathroom and have to take a break before you can walk 12 feet."
In Denial at First
Mr. Sommers, meanwhile, was trying to pick up the slack. "At first I was in denial. My attitude was that everything could be the same. That I could take care of a newborn, a wife with ovarian cancer, a 4-year old, an 8-year old, a house, laundry, shopping, the car, and a job to pay the bills," Mr. Sommers said. "I learned how important it is for the caregiver to let other people such as neighbors and family give. I also learned that just sitting with my wife while she rested or fell asleep was more important than doing the laundry, shopping, and even giving baths to the kids. It is important not to leave your spouse alone during all those hours. Other things can be delegated."
The Sommers’ had some advice for others: caregivers must take care of themselves first, must learn to focus on "what really matters," and must create a vision of the new status quo and a plan for maintaining it. Mr. Sommers stressed the importance of trying to, "Live every moment, and live in the moment."