Fears grow for 48,000 people in Northern Ireland struggling to care for a loved one suffering cancer
Around 48,000 people are caring for someone with cancer in Northern Ireland, sparking concern about growing pressures on carers, says new research.
The figures by Macmillan show the total number of cancer carers in the UK is now almost 1.5 million - an increase of a third (31%) in the past five years.
The YouGov survey suggests that, across the UK, family and friends spend an average 17.5 hours a week looking after a loved one with cancer - 2.5 hours more than in 2011. Shockingly, one in five of those surveyed spend over 35 hours a week, the same as a full time job, caring for someone with cancer.
The survey also reveals that cancer carers - from as young as 17 to people in their 80s - are taking on more responsibility.
Common tasks include giving medication, changing dressings, helping with eating and going to the toilet, and taking care of finances.
Worryingly, the research shows that over half (55%) of these carers receive no support.
Kevin McLaughlin (61) from Lurgan never saw himself as a carer. When his wife, Sheila, was told her breast cancer had spread to her spine and liver in February 2015, he wanted to look after her at home. They received support from their GP, district nursing team and Macmillan palliative care nurse. Kevin was also referred to Newry and Mourne Carers (NMC), who have joined forces with Macmillan to give a support service to cancer carers across the Southern Health and Social Care Trust area.
Kevin was put in contact with Richard Black, the local Macmillan NMC Support Worker.
He said: "The GP, District Nursing Team, Macmillan Palliative Care and Twilight Nurses were all brilliant. Not to mention all my work colleagues. But Richard was my rock. I had to keep everything together but I was drowning and, when you need a lifeboat, you grab at anything.
"My family were worried about me but I didn't want to worry them. I could have conversations with Richard that I couldn't have with anyone else. Not even Sheila. We both knew she was going to die but we never said it - not to each other. She was so brave. And I had to be brave for her. But I needed to know that Richard was at the end of a phone, or at the door, when I needed to open up about what was happening. I saw myself as a husband, not a carer. But that can stop people from asking for help. I'm telling my story to encourage other people to get the support they need."
As the Macmillan NMC Support Worker, Richard realised Kevin was coming under increasing strain, as his wife's condition weakened. He persuaded Kevin to take his GP's advice and stop work in October - four months before Sheila died. Richard said: "Far too often, carers focus on the health of their loved one. They tend to forget about themselves and that's when their own health can suffer.
"Kevin wanted to keep Sheila at home and do everything for her but, when the pain got too much, she needed hospice care."
Ruth Thompson, Macmillan development manager in Northern Ireland, said: "Many find themselves worrying about administering medicine, which they're not trained to do. And, on top of all their caring responsibilities, they may be carrying on working, looking after children and trying to remain positive.
Many carers find themselves under incredible physical and emotional strain that can put their own health at risk. That's why we have to ensure that they get the support they need."
For advice, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/carers and support line 0808 808 0000.