A Caregiver's Perspective

Cate Edwards helped her mom, Elizabeth Edwards, through two battles with breast cancer

Cate Edwards is the daughter of former U.S. Senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards and author and health care activist Elizabeth Edwards. She graduated with honors with a degree in political economics from Princeton University and later graduated with a law degree from Harvard Law School. Cate is currently practicing law as well as serving as president of the Elizabeth Edwards Foundation, which she started in her mother’s honor.

 

Cate Edwards was just 22 years old when her mother, Elizabeth, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2004. After getting over the initial shock, Cate, who had just graduated from Princeton, returned home to help her mom figure out the next steps.

“We decided to gear up and fight this thing,” Cate said. “We figured it was going to be a short-term experience that would hopefully end with her being cured.”

After undergoing treatment, Elizabeth’s cancer went into remission in 2006, but a follow-up scan a year later revealed that the cancer had returned. The official diagnosis was Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

“The mentality in terms of her life and living was very different because it wasn’t like we were going to stop everything to deal with this cancer, which it was in the initial diagnosis period,” Cate said. “Instead it was like we’re going to continue to live and live life actually to its fullest. It was her goal to make every single day count, so that was a different mentality in a lot of ways.”

Cate was one of her mom’s primary caregivers while she was undergoing treatment with chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiation therapy—as well as fighting side effects such as fatigue and back pain.

“There were days where she had trouble moving around a lot, and that just meant I had to be a support for her in a different way,” Cate said. “So I’d crawl into bed with her and watch HGTV or a ‘House’ marathon—that was one of her favorite shows. We did a lot of just cozying up and being lazy together, and that was really meaningful in its own way.”

Elizabeth also suffered from extreme skin dryness and flaking on her hands and feet.

“She used to do this thing where she would rub her feet with Udder Cream, and then wrap them in Saran Wrap and put on socks to help moisturize them,” Cate said. “So we did that together a few times. And my husband actually came to stay with her, and she made him do it, too. I walked in one day and saw him with his Udder Cream and his socks on the couch with my mom. So sometimes it was little things that made a difference and sort of made her feel more normal.”

While Cate’s focus was solely on taking care of her mom, she later realized it was just as important to take care of herself.

“It’s difficult when your loved one is going through cancer to say, ‘What about me?’” Cate said. “But the reality is that’s not the right mentality. It’s also hard on us as family members and loved ones, and that’s okay. To be there the best I could for her, I think it would have been smarter of me to try to take better care of myself.”

Fortunately, Cate did receive a lot of support from her husband, family and friends even when she didn’t ask for it. But now, as part of the Count Us, Know Us, Join Us advanced breast cancer community, Cate encourages caregivers to actively seek support.

“Looking for a support system is one thing that’s really important, and I’m not sure caregivers recognize that,” Cate said. “Our website (www.advancedbreastcancercommunity.org) provides resources and support that are really useful for everyone in this community, including caregivers and family members. So I would encourage people to go there to find out more about what they can do.”

As for knowing what to expect as a caregiver, Cate says it’s hard to predict.

“Every patient is different. Their needs are different. So keeping the line of communication open and being willing to talk about the disease, how the patient is feeling on a day-to-day basis and what their needs are is vital,” Cate said. “Even if it’s something like mowing the lawn; even if it’s making a grocery store run; even if it’s picking up prescriptions. Those things make a big difference. But every patient is different, so talking to them about their needs I think is a really important aspect of being a good caregiver.”

 

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