How do I keep her spirits up during chemo?

Simona asked...

My mom was diagnosed with brain cancer in July of 2010. there is no possibility of operating and she went for radiotherapy, but it seems that it only made her worse. She is now getting chemo three days every other three weeks, but I think she is very depressed because she refuses to talk and she often looks at me like "please just let me die".

I would like to know how I can cheer her up and get her to move a little and to take her medicine.

Expert Answer

Bonnie Bajorek Daneker is author and creator of the The Compassionate Caregiver's Series, which includes "The Compassionate Caregiver's Guide to Caring for Someone with Cancer," "The Journey of Grief," "Handbook on Hospice and Palliative Care," and other titles on cancer diagnosis and end of life. She speaks regularly at cancer research and support functions, including PANCAN and Cancer Survivor's Network. She is a former member of the Executive Committee of the CSN at St. Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta and the Georgia Chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

Hi Simona, As you've found, it's often difficult to keep someone's spirits up during chemo.

Many other caregivers have recommended looking through old scrapbooks or photo albums to relieve happier times. Other suggestions may be to bring youth around -- small children, puppies, or kittens -- to keep her mind off her progressing illness. Art therapy is popular as well: painting, sketching, even coloring books with crayons can be a welcome diversion. If she likes to watch TV, there are comedies on DVDs or game shows that may bring a smile.

This could be a little more complex issue though, and I have a few questions for you.

  • Did she make the decisions to have radiotheraphy and to continue to have chemo? Commonly, patients feel that they are not in control -- this disease is happening to them, and the treatments are happening to them, neither by choice.
  • It sounds like you need some more information. Do you know why she is refusing to talk to you? Could it be that she didn't want to have chemo and feels forced to do so? You may need some outside help to figure this out. Someone else could find out her true thoughts about the disease, about her treatment wishes and about her quality of life. Is there someone else that could talk privately with her -- a nurse practitioner, a social worker, clergy, friend -- to find out what's she's feeling?

What I'm going to say now is hard to hear, but if she's looking at you like "please just let me die," she is suffering. You may need to make some other decisions WITH HER about what's happening so that she's not suffering as much. This may mean discontinuing the chemo or starting other therapy. There are many ways to lesson the side effects of chemo and to mitigate the symptoms associated with cancer, and maybe she needs a change in her regimen.

Reach out to someone in her oncologist's office for suggestions as well. They are specifically familiar with her case and may be able to offer other suggestions, including pain management or counseling services. Good luck with keeping your spirits up through this.