Thank You for Caregiving: Love and Intuitive Care After a Metastatic Diagnosis
In this Q&A for National Family Caregiver’s Month, Gary Bartnicki shares his experience coping with the metastatic diagnosis of his wife, Lynn, and his approach to caregiving.
Lynn Bartnicki, 66, thought she was cancer-free. In March 2013, 19 years after her diagnosis with early-stage breast cancer, a PET scan showed that she had widespread bone metastasis. She later found out the cancer spread to part of her lung and adrenal glands.
She and her husband Gary, 61, were in denial after hearing about her diagnosis. Once the news sank in and the couple allowed themselves to feel devastated and cry, Gary did what many caregivers would do – regrouped and rallied himself and Lynn to determine the next steps to help her cope with and get treatment for stage IV breast cancer. The Bartnickis called Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York – about 100 miles from their home by the Manahawkin, New Jersey – beginning the series of appointments for Lynn’s care.
For Gary, caring for Lynn has been about listening to her needs, being intuitive when he can and just being there to hold her hand when she needs it.
In this Q&A for National Family Caregiver’s Month, Gary shared his experience as a caregiver of someone with metastatic breast cancer, how he and Lynn communicate about challenges, how he supports her and more.
Josh: How did your relationship with Lynn change after her diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer?
Gary: I’ve really taken over all of the household duties. I do 98% of the cleaning, ironing, food shopping. When she’s feeling good, I want Lynn to spend her energy doing something enjoyable instead of doing menial chores around the house.
Other than practical duties, our relationship really hasn’t changed. Whenever we experience difficult times, I’ve found that our love grows in leaps and bounds. We lean on each other so much. We’re so deeply in love and my love for her grows every single day. It’s been that way in the 32 years we’ve been together.
Josh: How did you and your family and friends help Lynn cope with the diagnosis?
Gary: Lynn and I, we’ve been to a number of conferences and retreats for metastatic disease to connect her, get her information and support. We live in a 55-and-over community and we have a few friends we can lean on. Just talking about it makes it easier for Lynn and I to cope, more so for her because she’s the one engulfed in this diagnosis.
Facebook is helpful. Lynn’s received a lot of support by being a part of the 2015 Hear My Voice: Metastatic Breast Cancer: Outreach Volunteer Program.
Josh: How do you and Lynn communicate about the ways you can support her?
Gary: Lynn is very straightforward with me in talking about her needs, but for the most part it’s intuitive. I go to every appointment with her, and if I can’t, I find someone who can. When you’re deeply in love with someone, it’s much easier to care for them. Just sitting with her and holding her hand eases her and myself.
We recently went to a wedding and they had a jar out in the open for guests to write tips for the newlyweds. I wrote, “Look out for each other’s interests. If you look out for each other’s interest, there’s no way your marriage can’t be stellar.” I feel very fortunate to have the relationship Lynn and I have.
Josh: Caregivers needs and emotional health are important. How do you balance supporting Lynn while also taking care of yourself?
Gary: In March 2013, I was so engulfed in her metastatic diagnosis that I found myself in a daze. One of Lynn’s friends told me I needed to care for myself; if I can’t take care of myself, I wouldn’t be able to take care of Lynn. My friends in our retirement community have been a huge help. I go out every once in a while and play pool or ping pong with the guys. I also find benefit in connecting with other caregivers and giving them support and vice versa.
Josh: What tips do you have for new caregivers of people with breast cancer?
Gary: Listen to your loved one. Don’t try to fix everything – you can’t. Be patient, be kind and be present. Be with them as much as possible.