Friday, September 20, 2013

practical tips for the brain cancer caregiver

People often use the term "battling cancer." Going to war means raising an army, and there are tons of people out there whose sole purpose is to support you. Start building your army/team/whatever from the beginning. Below I've started breaking down the areas of greatest need. I've put down examples of resources and things/people I've found important or useful. This is by no means comprehensive, but it's a start for those of you who, like me, were thrown into a very complicated situation with no warning or experience. I hope to update this as time goes by, adding what I've experienced and learned.

  • Legal
    • Will, living will, power of attorney, estate planning. Get all this out of the way early while you're still motivated by whatever sicko neurotransmitter creates energy from shock and tragedy.
    • Recruit: most county bar associations should have some sort of referral service to put you in touch with an attorney who specializes in your needs and won't charge you an arm and a leg. For example, I just found an elder law attorney in our area through such a referral program who will charge no more than $50 for an initial consultation. Write down a list of questions and make the most of that half hour (or however long). There might also be resources through local law schools, or reduced/pro bono clinics.

  • Medical
    • Medications
      • Avastin: can give the patient a squeaky and/or weak voice.
      • Be prepared for change. A drug might work great for a while (for us, it was Temodar). After a stint in the hospital we restarted it--lo and behold, mom is allergic to it! The steroids she had been taking masked her reaction. Know that there are many options and that you will, almost certainly, try several.
    • Hospice
      • Don't put it off. Call them in when you first need them. You're not stuck with them! If your patient jumps out of bed one day, fit as a fiddle, you can send them packing. 
      • The patient can't be pursuing aggressive/curative treatment if they choose to go into hospice care.
      • If you aren't ready to stop treatment, a lot of nurses/hospice workers "moonlight" in home health. Ask around. A friend of a friend has a registered nurse who works with hospice come out to her aunt's house regularly for only $15/hour! 
      • Recruit: your team's social worker. They will know just the person for you to talk to at the local hospice agencies. 

  • Financial
    • Insurance 
      • Keep up with premium payments (don't let the bills disappear into stacks of papers)
      • Recruit: insurance providers sometimes offer complimentary services such as a case manager. We've been offered one but haven't yet followed through. I'm not sure what he/she does, but the more the merrier!
    • Hospital
      • Whatever treatment isn't covered by insurance does not necessarily need to be paid off right away. Get in touch with customer service and set up a payment plan. Sending out ten $25 checks a month to different providers might seem tedious, but you're basically just paying off an interest-free loan. Save the big chunks of money for other things.
      • Patient-assistance programs. Chemotherapies and other medications are freakin' expensive. If your insurance doesn't cover the full cost (or any cost), many drug companies offer patient-assistance programs. Example: my mom's Temodar was shipped to our house monthly and we didn't pay a penny. 
      • If your assets are low enough, you may qualify for charity programs through your hospital.
      • There might be limited grants available through the hospital. For example, one month our social worker applied to a grant for us that covered one month's mortgage payment. I never, ever, would have thought to look for something like that. 
      • Recruit: social workers. The brain tumor clinic at our hospital has amazing social workers who know the ins and outs of all of this stuff. They walk on water and surely don't get paid enough. 
      • Recruit: In our clinic there is also a patient assistance liaison who handles the aforementioned financial relief programs.
    • Assets
      • Cancel the patient's car insurance if they are unable to drive, and consider selling the car. In our case, my mom will never go back to work and her doctors have told her she can't drive. It took me six months to realize I should cancel the insurance. Now the car is sitting there, depreciating in value with each day.  
      • If you have money sprinkled all over the place, now is the time to get it in order. Everyone's situation is going to be very different, but here are some general points I've learned:
        • If you are legally disabled you are exempt from the 10% additional tax applied to early withdrawals from retirement accounts. 
        • If you're thinking of moving money around or selling property, be aware of capital gains taxes. If your income is low enough (example: we are in the 15% tax bracket currently) you will be exempt. 
      • There are all sorts of strange breaks/benefits for a person on disability. For example, a free lifetime pass to our national parks (who would've thought?!). Also, in our county we can get a break on property taxes up to 50%. Do research for your state and county. Be persistent. 
      • Recruit: if you already have a financial advisor, awesome. If you don't, the decision to approach one depends entirely on you and your level of comfort with managing your finances. 
      • Recruit: There are tons of excellent online resources, not the least of which is the "Bogleheads" forum and wiki. It's basically a group of smart people who geek out over financial stuff, particularly investment planning. They critique one anothers' portfolios and are kind enough to answer questions from dummies like me. 
    • Social Security
      • Apply for Disability Insurance as soon as possible. With brain cancer it is pretty much guaranteed and they can sort of "fast-track" you through the system. You want to start early because, though SSDI means you are automatically eligible for Medicare, there is a 24-month waiting period before those benefits can take effect!

  • Personal
    • Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for long periods of waiting. You will wait for everything. Appointments, medicine, results, answers, relief, help, calls...everything.
    • Create a healthy routine from the start. Things are crazy and hectic in the beginning, and if you don't start off with healthy living in mind, it will be near impossible to implement later. Get outside each day. Plan your meals. Give yourself a break from caregiving. I've fallen into a routine of only leaving the house for appointments and grocery shopping--that's not living.
    • Get accustomed to the "new normal." That goes for both caregiver and patient. Things will never be the same as they were before your diagnosis, so don't set expectations that you will surely fall short of!
    • Make lists. Things to do. Things that make you happy. Ways to relieve stress.
    • Recruit: friends and family, obviously. Personally I have a hard time asking for help--that is, I don't even realize I need help until it's too late and I'm overwhelmed. Be open and honest with your friends and fam from the beginning. Tell them the situation and gauge how willing they'll be to step in and help out, even if it's just coming over and chatting for a while. Some people handle this sort of stuff better than others. One of my mom's friends, for example, doesn't handle illness and the thought of mortality well--she sort of spaces out. You can't force people to be there for you, but you can set appropriate expectations for yourself from the beginning. 
    • Recruit: Seek out a psychiatrist. This goes for both the patient and the caregiver. If you've never been to a therapist before, you'd be surprised just how helpful it is to simply talk for an hour. You can lay out the whole situation to a stranger and not worry about putting things delicately or biting your tongue about things that might otherwise make you feel guilty. 
    • Recruit: Your hospital or clinic will have information on support groups. Go to them! Our hospital has a dozen different groups. There is one specifically for brain tumor patients and their caregivers, which we have yet to visit. There is also one for caregivers only. I went to that once and it was wonderful. 

  • Random
    • Receiving unemployment: teaching assistantships (such as what I had during graduate school) do not count as eligible wages regarding such matters as unemployment benefits. BUT, if you had to leave your "real" job to care for a disabled family member, as noted in a previous post, you'll be eligible. It's an exception to disqualification that isn't usually mentioned on general descriptions of your state's unemployment policies, so take a look at the actual statutes. Legalese is dull, but you can find gems!
    • Buy a baby monitor set! Even if you don't need it yet, if you spot a good deal, grab it. I got mine at the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore for $5. If mom is too weak to get out of bed or needs something, I can hear her from anywhere in the house if I carry the receiver with me. Worth it's weight in gold.
    • On a similar note, consider buying something like this "remote wireless key finder." I bought this for a few bucks (price has increased, apparently) months ago in order to keep track of mom's cell phone. She would wander around with it, lose it, and calling to find it was no help because it was on silent. I bought a case with a ring for attachments and put this receiver keychain on it. Hit the button on the transmitter keychain and it starts beeping. These days, mom can't even turn on the phone, so I'm repurposing these. The transmitter will go on a lanyard around her neck, and I'll have the receiver by my bed. If she calls through the monitor while I'm asleep I rarely hear her. Or, like today, I found her on the floor of her bathroom. It's like that Life Alert "Help I've Fallen And I Can't Get Up!" but way cheaper. 

Last updated 12/18/2013

Image: Jacques-Louis David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps," 1801, link.

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