Cancer diagnosis often heals family relationships, study finds
Research at UKZN finds family members who are caregivers to cancer patients often strengthen their bonds
Cancer might be a death sentence for some, but it’s also a healer of family relationships.
That is the key finding of a study at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), where researchers explored the social burdens experienced by families affected by cancer in Pietermaritzburg.
While caregiving caused psychological, social and financial problems, 60% of carers said providing support for relatives resulted in stronger family bonds and a sense of affinity.
Cancer caregiving is a challenging task that presents opportunities to strengthen family bonds as they evolve.Lead researcher Dr Phindile Mlaba
Some said the experience increased their spirituality, which enhanced their coping ability.
Writing in the latest issue of the African Journal of Primary Healthcare and Family Medicine, lead researcher Dr Phindile Mlaba and her colleagues said the findings showed a family-centred care approach is essential in the healthcare system.
“Cancer caregiving is a challenging task that presents opportunities to strengthen family bonds as they evolve,” said Mlaba.
“If the needs of family caregivers are addressed through healthcare policies and interventions, these caregivers can provide better care and support for their family members and positively impact cancer survival.”
Mlaba told Sunday Times Daily the study had confirmed that caring for cancer patients in a family setting resulted in stronger family bonds.
While many outpatients preferred to be cared for by relatives in their homes, this could only work in a home that is adequately resourced, and Mlaba said policy changes were needed to integrate family caregivers into the formal healthcare system.
One of the study participants said she had a good relationship with a cancer patient but because they had both been sick and cared for each other, strengthened it even further.
Another caregiver confessed to not having a good relationship with the patient but said this changed after the cancer diagnosis “culminating in a strong bond being established during the journey of caring”.
Researchers said: “This was a rare and positive insight to the caregiving experience.”
A 48-year-old woman looking after a loved one said of their relationship: “We were not close. We became closer through her illness because she realised that I’m the one she’s forced to count on.”
Some saw caregiving as a family responsibility and spousal duty. “I take it as if I am doing my job and to also be a mentor to my daughters,” said a woman who cared for her sick husband.
Some participants, however, said their relationships had suffered, often because of the financial burden of healthcare expenses.
‘We were very close before she got sick ... now it’s not that great and it’s mostly because of money,” said a 60-year-old man.
Co-author Dr Khumbulani Hlongwana said the dominant view from caregivers was “that of a very close relationship with the patient, with minor and resolvable episodes of a soured relationship”.
“There were also reports of the cancer negatively affecting the patients’ personality, but being unable to impact on their relationship, because of the caregiver’s and patient’s understanding of the situation,” he said.
“Participants also shared about the importance of family responsibility and the fulfilment of expected duties in the family setting.”
Co-author Themba Ginindza said: “The formalisation of family caregiving in the South African context can aid in the establishment of a clear relationship between the healthcare system and family caregivers.
“This can also aid in the development of healthcare policies that promote the wellbeing of family caregivers, because families play a vital role in the care of patients as they are the patient’s first point of support and care.”