As trained pharmacists, Jann Skelton and her late husband, David, spent their lives helping patients and caregivers. But when David was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, the tables turned. “For the first time, we were in the shoes of the patients and the caregivers,” Skelton said.
While Skelton’s background helped her manage the medical aspects of her husband’s care, dealing with the stress and emotions were more difficult. Like most caregivers, Skelton had to figure out how to take care of her own needs so that she could effectively care for her husband while also caring for her young children.
While the average age at diagnosis for pancreatic cancer is 71, David was just 49. They were raising two children, who were 8 and 11 at the time. Jann had a health care consulting business, which required her to travel often, and an ambitious five-year plan for her family and career.
“Pancreatic cancer laughed mightily at that plan,” she said. “To focus on caring for my husband and our kids, I shut down my work and volunteering with the school and my church. I’ve never had a situation with so much stress.”
Skelton isn’t alone in facing this high burden. Cancer caregivers spend an average of 33 hours a week caring for their loved one with cancer. Half of cancer caregivers have high levels of emotional stress and 62 percent of them report being in a high burden situation.
WHEN JANN SKELTON’S HUSBAND WAS DIAGNOSED WITH PANCREATIC CANCER, SHE MADE SURE TO TAKE CARE OF HERSELF AND ACCEPT HELP FROM OTHERS WHILE CARING FOR HIM.
Put on Your Mask First
Much like airplane passengers are instructed to put on their oxygen mask first before helping others, caregivers need to take care of themselves first. “If you’re taking even the most basic care of yourself, you will be a better caregiver,” she said.
Skelton’s friends and extended community stepped in. Sometimes another parent would bring her son home from soccer or stay at the house while she went grocery shopping. They provided her with breaks so she could go to yoga class. Doing yoga a few times a week gave her an hour to think about nothing.
It was difficult for Skelton to take a break sometimes because she felt she was the family lynchpin. She managed her husband’s feeding tubes and helped him with daily activities such as bathing and dressing.
“It was hard to go to a yoga class when I knew he might have felt better if I didn’t,” she said. “Sometimes I went anyway. It was something I just needed for myself.”
Sometimes you don’t realize the circle you have until something bad happens. I didn’t realize I had that circle.
Realize You Have a Circle
People came out of the woodwork to help Jann and her family during this difficult time, partly because the Skeltons were honest and open about David’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis and the family’s situation—a tactic she recommends. People want to help; if they know there’s a need, they’ll fill it.
“That was an amazing gift,” Skelton said. “I didn’t realize the circle I had until something bad happened.”
It took Skelton a while to know what she needed, and then to be comfortable telling people who asked. “If you don’t answer, they’re going to do what they think you need. It’s better to give some positive direction,” she said.
She tells caregivers to make a list of what would be helpful and what causes the most stress, no matter how small. Maybe you need your doorknob fixed or your laundry or yard work done. If someone asks, pull out the list and let them pick.
DAVID SKELTON WAS JUST 49 AND IN THE MIDST OF RAISING TWO CHILDREN WHEN HE WAS DIAGNOSED WITH PANCREATIC CANCER.
Make a Standing Appointment
The day her husband was diagnosed, Skelton called a counselor to talk. She knew caregiving could lead to depression or anxiety, which can be exacerbated by exhaustion. For two years, she kept a standing weekly appointment for herself and her kids, depending on who needed it most. Her husband also saw a counselor, sometimes with Skelton.
“Your friends want to help you, but they can’t understand, and you’d never want them to,” she said. “The counseling time helped me think through how to manage the situation and not to get lost in ‘what if’ thinking about the future.”
Skelton also found a group of young widows who were her support system after her husband passed. “To find people nearby with the same life experience is stabilizing. You feel like you’re not out there in the deep end,” she said.
It’s still difficult for Skelton to talk about her husband’s passing. But she believes that her experience of being a caregiver has set an example for her kids — as well as for other cancer caregivers — that no matter what they are going through, they never have to go it alone. Five years later, she and her kids still feel enveloped by their community.
To read more about working together to cope with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, see “Facing Each Day with Pancreatic Cancer, Hand-in-Hand.”