This guide will cover how to portray a person who is caring for someone with cancer, not someone who has the illness themselves. I have included side effects of treatments though, to give you a rough idea if that’s a storyline you are developing for your character.
I have been a carer for almost nine years now and I’ll cover the things that I have experienced in that time. I’m not saying I’m perfect by any means, but I know this is such a sensitive subject and hopefully this helps. This is just a guide to the processes your character may go through and experience. (Although, it sort of reads like a pamphlet for real carers and if you are dealing with this OOC, then I hope I’ve helped a little there too.)
YOUR CHARACTER AS A CARER.
“If you dont know learn how to be scared, you’ll never really learn how to be brave.”
— Simon Holt, The Devouring.
I don’t know your character. I don’t know how they might react in any given circumstances, but I do know how most people reacted in the hospitals I went to. There are so many things that your character may feel:
These are all normal things for your character experience when they hear the news. Some fall to pieces, cry, wail, beg that it isn’t happening. Some just nod, get on with it and help with treatment.
Carers, however, have a different role if that’s what they choose to do. They have to be assertive, but supportive. They have to be gentle, but they can’t lie. Carers are the ones that have to try and make a person to eat when they’ve given up and convince them to fight another day.
There is a little training involved that can be provided if you ask for it, but if the relative asks to stay at home throughout treatment then oftentimes it lands on family to do once the nurses have finished their part. If the friend/relative has radiotherapy for example then they may come home the same day and the side effects can come on fairly quickly with this treatment, which means your character may have to deal with it.
Being a carer doesn’t always mean giving medication or acting like a nurse/doctor. It means being the one to wake up at two in the morning to help them if their vomiting, it means listening to them be angry and scared (even if your character is scared.)
Sometimes a carer can feel unappreciated, unloved, dismissed by their relative or friend who is dealing with this.
And you know what? That’s completely fine.
Your character is allowed to be selfish and be upset by this. Your character is human so make them that way. With cancer there is a lot of waiting around to see if the treatment worked and it can be frustrating and scary and some days, you can forget for a few hours that your character is even dealing with it.
A lot of the time I see people writing that their friend/relative has cancer one week and the next everything is fine, it doesn’t always work that way. It’s a long, long process. For a carer, you are not only dealing with the shock of this but you are trying to be a person that the relative/friend can lean on. Your character has to be strong in a time when it’s too scary to think about being anything but.
Sometimes a person go from being a daughter, a son, a wife or a husband to being what feels like a nurse and a cook and a cleaner and a therapist and a teacher — you’re allowed to feel like you’ve been given this burden that you never asked for. The relative/friend may not even want their daughter, son, wife or husband to see them in such a position and arguments are just as natural as the tears.
Some days are harder than others. Your character may need time away and while that is a sensitive subject, it’s allowed. It’s hard to deal with all the time if you’re watching a beloved family member battle such an illnesses, your character isn’t superman. Let them get tired, be afraid, want to leave - all are natural.
Below I will list the side effects that both your character and their relative may have to deal with during treatment.
TYPES OF CANCER.
There are several types of cancer, over 200 types in fact and they all affect people in different ways. Men can get breast cancer and women can get rectal cancer. When portraying a family member who has cancer, it is important to know what type of cancer they have and where in their treatment they are.
If you need extra information then there are several websites that you can use to find types of cancer, and the signs to look out for.
"It’s like the world slowly closed in on me and all I could hear were three words…’You have cancer.’ Everything else is just a dream. You go outside and everyone is just getting on with what they’re doing that day, but your entire world has shifted."
— My Dad.
Since I’m speaking from personal experience, your character may react differently but you have to remember that while the news is initially devastating to hear, your character needs to try and be a pillar of support for their family member and remind themselves that there are avenues they can go down. Like my dad said, all he could hear was he had cancer and as a family we were the ones to get all the information because he was in such a numb state of shock and worry.
Although the person dealing with the disease will be in a far worse state than your character, everyone is going to be affected by this. Your characters world will have completely changed too and they are allowed to be upset, they are allowed to be angry and confused and scared. Let your character feel all of these emotions because it’s not selfish to want this not to be happening to them.
It’s this period that your character has to be strong too, for the family member. Their family member/friend is going to be scared, their body is changing and it’s been happening without their knowledge or consent. They might ask questions such as "Was it because I smoked?" or "Did I bring this on myself?" Your character should remain positive, supportive and try to keep a cool head.
Yes, it’s been proven that some things do affect cancer cells but cancer isn’t selective. It doesn’t matter about your gender, your age, your race or religion. Laying a guilt trip because your characters family member smoked for fifteen years, despite the warnings, isn’t going to help anything. That isn’t to say those arguments won’t happen though, but try and think how your character would react to the situation before throwing out angry comments.
It’s not wrong to think things like "Why our family?” or "What did I do wrong?” even though your character(s) are perfectly healthy and yes, your character may feel guilty for being so self-centered at this time but it’s a completely natural reaction to something so shocking.
TREATMENTS & SIDE EFFECTS
Some days there won’t be a song in your heart. Sing anyway.
— Emory Austin
Now to the actual caring process!
There are many roads that a person can go down when receiving treatment for cancer. I will cover what I dealt with personally but there are research websites if you would like to look at other options too, which I will list later. I’ll focus on the main two though.
If the family member goes through radiotherapy first, it’s important to know the processes that go into it. There are two types of this treatment: EXTERNAL (which is where the patient is treated from outside of their body and high does of radiation are focused on the cancer cells from a machine.) and INTERNAL (whereby the patient injects liquids or implants.) It depends on the type of cancer that they have as to which one of these they will be booked in for.
Each external session takes a few minutes and the patient will be asked to go back a few times to make sure they have treated the full area, but are often allowed to go home the same day.
Since this is from the carers point of view, I will focus mostly on the side effects.
Radiotherapy, despite popular belief, will not make the person act like the Incredible Hulk nor does it hurt. In fact, your characters family member may feel tired a lot and they might lose their appetite. Since my father had throat cancer, he was prone to cold-sores and jaw ache after a course of radiotherapy and often times complained of headaches. He had both internal and external radiotherapy as the cancer returned three times and for both types, he complained of the same symptoms although with the internal one he had a dry mouth a lot which sometimes caused him to become overly thirsty.
The area where the radiotherapy is focused may also become red and tender and sometimes your character may have to help apply lotion to soothe it, ointment will be provided by the hospital which is specialized to the sensitivity of the skin. It usually takes a few days for this to settle down and can be very annoying to the patient, so your character may have to deal with someone who is annoyed easily, who can become irritable and fussy.
The process is kind of scary, especially when the patient is refusing to eat or seems rather stubborn or selfish, but those are just side effects and they are not aimed at your character personally.Chemotherapy is another option that doctors take, if they feel radiotherapy isn’t effective enough. There are several ways it can be given, via a drip, a tablet, a cream or an injection. This is a much more aggressive treatment and can be hard for the patient, but as the carer you have a lot of responsibility too.
Chemotherapy can be done at home if the patient is taking the drug via tablet form and they can be kept in the fridge, out of reach of children, but instructions will be given by the nurse.
Depending on what drugs they are taking, the side effects can be different. If the patient is taking a single dose, then the side effects won’t be as prevalent as someone taking a combination of chemotherapy drugs.
Hair Loss: Contrary to popular belief, you don’t always lose all your hair when having chemotherapy treatment as with my father. But, in most cases this is something that happens (my uncle lost all of his hair) and it can be very traumatic, especially for women. Your character has to take on a role of support here. It can be a shock to see a relative looking so different, but a positive outlook and not making a big deal out of it help. Hair loss can happen within one to three weeks of the treatment starting but once treatment has ended, patients find that their hair will grow back.
As a carer you need to be understanding but not overwhelming. Your character might not know what it’s like to lose all their hair and the patient might be irritable, upset, depressed over this side effect. While your emotions will be all over the place too - a completely normal feeling - you have to reassure and comfort in those few months of therapy.
Fatigue, Nausea & Constipation: This is one of the most common side effects next to hair loss. Light exercise is encouraged, but chemotherapy targets the cancer aggressively and your character may find themselves having to do more things than usual for their relative. Cleaning up, cooking, washing, tidying will all be things that they now find hard to do and your character may have to take up the slack here.
On the other side, they may find it difficult to sleep and your character may be awake all night with them before going to school. Think how these things could have an effect on your character.
Feeling constipated, sick or being sick is common too. Even if your character(s) are helping them to eat, their friend or relative may suddenly feel sick and not want to eat for a long time. Be patient, your character may get frustrated.
Increased risk of infection: Your character may find that they have to do a lot more cleaning than they anticipated. Blood tests are often carried out for those taking this course of therapy to check how their body is fighting illnesses and carers must make sure they are keeping the area that their relative is in, clean, tidy and free of any external messes. Your character may find they have to help their relative take regular baths, because the fatigue is making it difficult for them to do things on their own.
Anemia & Bruising: Because chemotherapy lowers the red blood cell count. This means that their body isn’t getting enough oxygen and they may become tired, have an irregular heartbeat or have a lack of energy. These can be quite scary symptoms at first, but they are common. Make sure your character knows that when making meals they must be full of iron, to help battle it.
Bruising is common too, your character may find large bruises on their friends or relatives skin. Their blood is a little thinner so your character needs to make small changes when caring for their relative, making sure things like they have an electric shaver instead or a soft toothbrush.
Mucositis: This is an inflammation of the skin tissue from the mouth down to the anus. My father did suffer from this on his first batch of chemotherapy. When he was eating, he’d often spit it back out and say it was burning the inside of his mouth and that he didn’t want to eat it. He often got ulcers on his tongue and the inside of his lip through this and it occurred within a week of his first treatment. This does not happen to all patients and is quite uncommon, though it can happen and it’s very uncomfortable. Your character will have to find help from doctors if this happens about what to feed them and it is quite distressing to see.
Depression for both the relative/friend and your character is very common. Tackle this well. It’s hard being the person caring when your character may be the son, or daughter, and is used to being looked after. You can find a guide for playing a character with depression here [x] although, I’m sure there are more.Wanting to stop treatment: This is something your character may have to deal with. Sometimes the side effects make it seem worse than it is and they no longer want to do it. Your character may have to deal with guilt trip "Why are you making me do this when it’s making me so miserable?" or "What’s the point? It might not even work." Your character can build from these things, become a support system they never thought they were.Listening, rather than talking, does wonders in these situations. It’s so easy to make it about your character, trust me, but it’s about the patient. They’re scared, just like you are, but they’re in pain and they’re no longer active or eating foods they love and it can bring a person down. Your character has to help them through this and by doing that, they can help themselves deal with it.
Your character may find it difficult to deal with things like this, so have them interact with others more.OTHER TYPES OF TREATMENT:
TERMINAL CANCER & AFTERMATH
'Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.'
— Dr. Seuss.
In the worst case scenario, your character may have to care for someone who is terminally ill.
This is hard because I don’t know how your character may react to this, but support for both your character and the relative is essential. Time together as a family, not as carer and patient, is vital so have your character step away from that role.
Unfortunately my father and uncle fell into the terminal cancer area and for their last month, both were in an hospice, so I cannot give a real guide to terminal care. It is usually recommended by that stage that nurses look after the relative/friend. A hospice is a place where people are made to feel comfortable and relaxed in their last weeks, relatives are welcome to go and see them when they want.
Sometimes the aftermath can feel like nothing ever happened at all. Your character may have gotten used to being this active, constant person and now they have nothing to do. Sometimes the relative might not even acknowledge that your character has done anything for them or they could be overly thankful.
Even during caring for a relative/friend, you can go to sessions where you can relax with other carers and people in the same position. It is a very stressful thing for a character to take on and remember: your character is human too. They are allowed to be upset by this, even if they’ve agreed to being a carer.
Honestly, play your character how you see fit and play them how you would think they’d react to a situation. You know your character but when dealing with cancer, try and make it realistic.
I really do hope this helped in some way.