Imagine you are in your late 30s, and you’ve accepted a new job. It’s busy and there’s a lot to take in, but you’re excited as you begin your new role.
Then you get news, and your world changes overnight: Your spouse has cancer and will need to undergo treatment. You know they will need your help, but what, exactly, will be needed and how will you do it?
For two Seattle-area women, this wasn’t something they imagined — it was their new reality.
For Nicole Kerby of Shoreline, Wash., now age 40, it all began in January 2022 when her husband was admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with a life-threatening infection. While there, physicians discovered his blood counts were abnormal, which suggested blood cancer.
“It was a real gut punch,” she said.
By early February 2022, Marc Kerby, age 50, was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome.
“He wasn’t making enough healthy blood cells and was at risk for major bleeding and further serious infections,” she explained. “Getting a bone marrow transplant was the only possibility for a cure.” The couple went to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center for treatment.
Just one month earlier, Kerby had taken on a new role as a clinical mental health therapist. At first, she tried to work and help her husband at the same time, but she quickly realized it was unsustainable. Fortunately, she was able to make arrangements with her work so she could serve as her husband’s full-time caregiver.
For patients receiving a blood or marrow transplant at Fred Hutch, it is a requirement that they have a caregiver with them 24 hours a day during treatment and for several weeks after due to the intensity of the treatment.
Kerby shared some insights that can help others who are stepping into a caregiver role:
Like Kerby, Dana Boggess, now age 44, of Kirkland, Wash., was in the midst of a job transition when she and her husband Bill Niwa, 52, found out that he had multiple myeloma, a disease related to bone marrow.
Boggess explained they had several months to prepare for the stem cell transplant, which occurred in November 2017 at Fred Hutch. Boggess was able to use the time to adjust her work and other obligations so it would be possible to take Niwa to his clinic appointments and help him at home.
But still, when the weekly and sometimes daily clinic appointments began, Boggess admits the experience was often more than challenging. Like others who care for a loved one going through cancer treatment, though, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When asked to offer advice for new caregivers, Boggess said to lean into your own strengths and get rid of stereotypes you may have of a soft-spoken, selfless caregiver “type.” When you do this, you’ll be able to do what is needed to help your loved one.
She laughed a bit when she recalled a personality test she once took at her workplace. “I believe in the ‘carer’ category, I got a zero,” she said. Despite this, she took on the caregiver role her way.
Boggess believes strongly that asking good questions, listening and being a steady presence for that person are some of the best qualities a caregiver can have. Here are her tips:
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