With cancer patients living longer, carers in Australia are finding it increasingly difficult to cope, reporting health issues including stress, anxiety, burnout and depression, according to a study published recently in Cancer Forum.
The review of literature on unpaid caregiving highlights a range of health and other issues for carers of cancer patients, noting that in carers of advanced cancer patients, between 32% and 70% have experienced high level distress or depressive symptoms suggesting clinical depression.
According to the author, Professor Anne Wilkinson, from the WA Centre for Cancer and Palliative Care, despite their crucial role (carers’ replacement value is estimated at AU$30.5 billion annually), carers’ needs are often neglected or underappreciated, including by palliative care health professionals.
"The number of unpaid carers in cancer is growing, due to several factors including improvement in cancer survival rates, meaning people are living with the disease for longer," said Professor Wilkinson. "We also know 90% of terminally ill patients spend their last years at home cared for by lay carers."
Professor Wilkinson said carers were spending an average of 40 hours a week providing care. They were doing more hands-on activities, including nursing and medical procedures. As patients moved through the cancer trajectory, and disease progressed, their needs increased "exponentially".
"The research shows caregiving places far reaching demands on the carer, physically, emotionally, financially, in existential and social domains, and can negatively impact the carer’s health, wellbeing, immune system, risk for disease and life expectancy when compared to non-carers," she said.
The situation was exacerbated by health professionals failing to refer patients to specialist or community based palliative care services in time, with almost 15% referred too late to receive services.
Despite the challenges, Professor Wilkinson said carers did report positive aspects of end-of-life caregiving, including emotional strength, personal growth and strengthened relationships.
(Source: Cancer Council Australia: Cancer Forum: July 2010)