The Importance of a Caregiver

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When you are diagnosed with cancer, your whole life can turn upside down. That’s why having a strong support system, including a dedicated caregiver, is an integral part of one’s cancer journey. Jenny Haverly of Anamosa learned this firsthand after being diagnosed in September 2016. Her team, which included her care coordinator, oncologist, social worker and more, all helped her along the way. However, it was her mother, Jan Smith of Martelle, who really helped her make it through this difficult time.

“She came to every appointment, every chemo treatment, when I had my surgery she was there,” said Haverly. “When I was dealing with side effects, she would take care of my three kids so I didn’t have to be the mom, I could just be the patient.”

To better understand what Smith provided her daughter, we must go back to May 2014. Smith went in for her annual physical, which included her yearly mammogram, at UnityPoint Health – Jones Regional Medical Center. She had been recalled the two previous years for cysts that turned out to be nothing, so she wasn’t too concerned when she received a recall for the third year in a row. She went back for a biopsy and then waited for the results.

“As soon as I heard his [the physician’s] voice I said, ‘I have breast cancer, don’t I?” shares Smith. The doctor confirmed her fear. Smith was diagnosed with stage 1a Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Smith chose to go to the Helen G. Nassif Community Cancer Center for her care. At her first appointment she met with her care coordinator, oncologist and surgeon, and went in for a double mastectomy a few weeks later. After 12 grueling weeks of chemo Smith started her survivorship journey.

This brings us back to September 2016. Haverly went in for her first mammogram at the age of 41, and like her mother two years earlier, got the call to come back.

“She [Smith] came with me to my recall appointment,” said Haverly. “Because once I got the call to come back I knew I had breast cancer. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.” After an ultrasound and a biopsy Haverly found out her fate. Cancer.

“The first thought that goes through your head is ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die,” said Haverly. “There’s shock, there’s pain, every emotion was there, but I think it helped to watch my mom go through it. She’s back to normal, a new normal, but she’s back.”

Haverly also chose the Community Cancer Center for her care upon being diagnosed with stage 1a Invasive Lobular Carcinoma. She too elected to undergo a double mastectomy and, after a brief delay due to a high liver enzyme count, began chemo.

Hit hard by the side effects, Haverly’s daily routine was interrupted. “She’s so busy,” said Smith. “She’s a nurse in the NICU at St. Luke’s and she has a family. I gained three kids at that point.” Smith helped the children with everything from doing homework to making lunches and anything else they needed while their mother rested and their father worked.

“As a mom you always worry about your kids and she made that day-to-day stuff easier,” said Haverly. “They still needed to have their normal and she helped provide that.”

Haverly also credits the rest of her family, her work family and her team at the Community Cancer Center for helping her along the journey. Her husband also helped with the kids, her coworkers brought her coolers full of food, and the Community Cancer Center staff helped her through treatment.

“I’m not going to lie, every time I walk into this building I dread it, because it’s all related to my cancer,” she said. “But when you get here the people make it bearable. They ask how you’re doing, they make you smile. You’re not just a patient to them, so it’s really hard to be down when you’re here.”

The Community Cancer Center’s impact on their journey has continued into survivorship as well. They attend wellness classes, cooking demonstrations and even went on a bus trip to Wrigley Field to watch a Cubs game. They also took part in the Genetics and Cancer Risk Assessment Clinic where they learned they don’t carry the BRCA gene, which means future generations in their family won’t be at any higher risk.

After what they have experienced, they want others who are going through a similar situation to realize how valuable their support group will be. “Cancer will touch more people that we know than we could ever imagine,” said Smith. “If we don’t take advantage of each other’s strengths we’re hurting ourselves. It’s a journey no one should walk, but if you do walk it, don’t walk it alone.”

Haverly is grateful that she had her mother there to walk with her. “She was my rock,” said Haverly. “She’d been through it and walked the exact path I did. She provided something for me that no one else could’ve done.”

To learn more about caregiver resources, both during treatment and in survivorship, call us at (319) 558-4876.

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