Time to care for the carers

Improving Health and Wellbeing

Many caregivers for people with cancer need more support to help them cope with the massive challenges they encounter – and a number of key illness management strategies could make all the difference, claims Canadian psycho-oncology expert Asst Professor Sylvie Lambert, who is currently visiting Deakin.

“We have found that carers for people with cancer often experience more anxiety and depression than the patients,” said Asst Prof Lambert.

“Caregivers confront many of the same difficulties as patients. Understandably, the focus from the health care team is on the patient, but research has shown that interventions can reduce the distress and increase the wellbeing of carers.”

Asst Prof Lambert is based at Canada’s prestigious Ingram School of Nursing at McGill University, Montreal. Her four-week visit to Deakin’s Faculty of Health has been funded by Deakin’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), through an international research collaboration scheme.

During her stay, she has met with staff and HDR students, set the foundations for future collaborations for funding grants, presented two cross-faculty seminars and joined with Professor Trish Livingston, the Faculty of Health’s Associate Dean (Research), Professor Liliana Orellana, Dr Steve Bowe and Dr Leila Heckel to analyse caregiver data from the World Health Organisation population-based Study on Global AGEing and Adult Health (SAGE), surveying several low/middle income countries.

Since beginning her career in nursing, Asst Prof Lambert has achieved international research standing on patient education, information-seeking, caregiver research, sustainable self-management interventions, longitudinal research, and psychometrics.

She is no stranger to Australia, having completed an NHMRC Fellowship at the University of New South Wales (2010-13), where she co-ordinated Australia’s first longitudinal caregiver well-being study. She is delighted to be extending her connections in Victoria.

“This is only the beginning of my relationship with Deakin,” she said.

“Being able to collaborate face-to-face has allowed us to jumpstart some complex projects and is having a ripple effect of initiating a number of other projects across the many people and research groups I have met. I have had discussions with Deakin and the Cancer Council of Victoria researchers on how we can work together to improve support for carers and patients with cancer.”
Assistant Professor Sylvie Lambert

Also, a Mindfulness-based program, currently being developed by Ms Lahiru Russell, a PhD student in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, may be adapted for carers of cancer patients in Canada.

Asst Prof Lambert noted that one of her proudest achievements was development of a self-directed coping skills training package for couples facing cancer, called “Coping Together,” which provides carers with support “in their own time at their own pace.”

“Health care systems are often faced with cost challenges, so to be cost effective we needed to be innovative and creative in how we developed interventions,” she said.

The “Coping Together” series of booklets aims to help carers with the most common concerns, providing evidence-based strategies for coping with challenges such as anxiety and depression, through relaxation strategies, for instance, or lack of information, through question prompts, or ways to support each other, through improved communication strategies.

“One of the major challenges for carers and patients is realising that the illness may not be able to be ‘fixed.’ This makes people feel powerless.

“However, we know that carers can do many things to ‘pull through’ and help patients and themselves cope with the illness in the best possible way,” she said.

“Carers provide huge cost savings to the health system and many systematic reviews have been done over the past decade that show us the challenges they face. Now, the next step is to tease out what interventions are most useful, when and for whom.”