Viewpoint: Ask carers how they are and listen - it will make a difference

There are over a million people in the UK caring for someone with cancer, writes Dr Johnny Browne, Macmillan GP adviser for Northern Ireland.

Dr Browne: 'Probably the most frustrating elements of being a carer is the waiting.'
Dr Browne: 'Probably the most frustrating elements of being a carer is the waiting.'

I was one of those for four years when my lovely wife Lynda had ovarian cancer from which she died in 2011.  What did I learn as a carer?

Above all the comparison of how in one way it is exceedingly difficult, not just to navigate the system - and if I found it hard as an experienced GP what must it be like for those with no knowledge - but also how difficult it is emotionally, physically and financially.

And in another how easy it is to be a carer for the one you love, taking on tasks you never thought you were capable of. I moved from cooking baked beans to (semi) gourmet meals (along with the obligatory porridge and steroids at 4am during some of the treatments).

I was fortunate in that my partners were very flexible. I could attend all appointments and chemo treatments and then retire early, increasing my flexibility even more while still keeping on other medical roles. This is a rare rather than common occurrence.

Cancer can put a real strain on not just the patient’s but also the carer’s occupation and with it their finances.  And what of the carer’s health?  I have a good friend who is a physician who kept in touch right through Lynda’s illness and I always noticed how at every contact, in person or by telephone he would always say: ‘And how are you doing?’, concerned that I was looking after myself.

I look back and wonder how often I asked patients in my surgery who were carers the same question.  The answer I know is not often enough.

Probably the most frustrating elements of being a carer is the waiting - mostly for appointments, tests, results and operations - and the communication failings. While most were excellent, the 2% that were poor often undid the good of the 90%.

So for all of us, don’t become semi detached from our cancer patients and their carers, ask carers how they are and listen - it will make a difference.

* Dr Browne is also is also medical director of the Belfast Trust out-of-hours service. More information on Macmillan Cancer Support’s Do you Care? campaign.

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