My mother, who has breast cancer, asks me to visit her every time she thinks there's a crisis. What should I do?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother, who is 72, is suffering from metastatic breast cancer -- and I'm the primary caregiver, even though I live at the opposite end of the country. She calls me all the time, telling me there's a new crisis with her health and asking me to come home to care for her. I have an 8-year-old daughter and work full-time, and I can't just get on a plane every time she asks me to. How do I handle this?

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.

Your first task is to find out what's really going on and how serious it is. Your mother may just be trying to tell you that she's lonely.When your mother was first diagnosed and started treatment, she probably got lots of attention amidst a flurry of activity. Now that things have settled into a more long-term pattern, she may be having trouble adjusting to not having a lot of company.

Get yourself a local intermediary -- a friend, a family member, a neighbor, or a professional -- who can be your eyes and ears. When you get the call, tell your mother you're very concerned and you're sending that person over to make sure everything's OK. This will help her feel that you're taking her concerns seriously, and you'll have a way of assessing the situation.

If you have the means, it would be a good idea to hire a professional who can visit your mother regularly -- once a week for half an hour, say -- and give you a regular status report: How much pain is your mother in? What symptoms is she experiencing? What's her emotional state like? That way, you can get at the truth of what's going on without flying across the country to be there.

You might also get some valuable information that you wouldn't get even if you were there. Sometimes a patient will tell a third party things she wouldn't tell family members or her doctor.

I'd also suggest that you address the emotional issues with your mother, since it's likely that she's using her illness as a way to get more time with you and perhaps her granddaughter as well. Remind her that you have responsibilities and ask her not to take your absence as a slight.

You could say something like, "Mom, you were a great role model because you were such a caring, involved mother. Now I'm trying to be like you and do the same thing for my own daughter. I need to be with her, and she needs to be here in school, so we can't come as often as we'd like." Taking this approach helps you change the perspective and make your mother feel strong by acknowledging what an important role she played for you.