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My WebMD: Caring for a Spouse with Cancer

How Dave Balch learned to care for his wife through several bouts of cancer – and also care for himself.
By Dave Balch
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

 In April 2002, when the doctor told us my wife, Chris, had breast cancer, the first two words out of my mouth were "Oh" and a four-letter word. I felt shock and disbelief -- that this kind of thing happens to other people, not to us. I had no idea how I would handle this -- do all the caregiving, plus make a living. Right away, my attitude was, "It's her job to get better, and it's my job to do everything else." But it still seemed impossible.

As it turned out, Chris had stage 3 breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. She definitely wanted me to be involved, and I wanted to be there for her as much as possible. But we live up in the mountains and are pretty isolated. There are no support groups.

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At the time I was a software developer -- I now like to say I'm a recovering software developer -- so I did what came naturally: I started doing research on the Internet. I found an oncologist whom we loved and what I considered the best cancer center in the West at UCLA.

And because I'm a naturally protective person, I threw myself into caring for Chris through what turned out to be four bouts of breast cancer, which included six surgeries, two rounds of chemotherapy, and three rounds of radiation. I changed dressings, dealt with her surgical drains, bathed her, fed her, gave her medicine, and drove her to and from UCLA, which was 100 miles each way. I did all this because I believed the short-term sacrifice was worth the long-term result: her survival.

Caretaker Burnout

After about five years I did develop burnout -- what some people call "compassion fatigue." I really needed to get out of the house, away from talking and thinking so much about cancer. All of that, combined with financial problems, was just too much.

Eventually I joined an online support group, which was very helpful. And I decided to write a book to help other caregivers deal with what can be an exhausting, stressful, isolating job. I've become a professional speaker and have developed several online tools, including thepatientpartnerproject.org , copinguniversity.com, and a free monthly newsletter, "Caring and Coping," to support patients and their caregivers, family, and friends.

I've learned so much in the course of this journey -- about the importance of humor (no, cancer isn't funny, but some of the things that happen because of cancer make you laugh out loud), of talking and listening, and of dealing with the weird things people say in these situations.

Chris is doing well now. Her breast cancer has returned three times (once in her bones and twice as brain tumors), but she is healthy otherwise. We have found this journey has brought us closer together, which is saying a lot because we have been together pretty much 24/7 for the last 25 years!

Reviewed on October 05, 2011

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