A Mother's Love: A Q&A With Kate Dennin
Fifteen years ago, at age 30, Maureen Smith was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Her mother, Kate Dennin, of Havertown, Pennsylvania, became Maureen’s caregiver. Maureen and Kate had trouble finding information for young women with breast cancer. But then they found Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and our many resources for young women. Maureen and Kate began volunteering extensively for LBBC, taking part in our conferences, gala, a photo shoot and other programs.
Maureen passed away in 2015. Kate honors her memory with the volunteer work she continues to do for LBBC. She was recognized this year with LBBC’s Caregiver Award.
Kate sat down with LBBC’s writer and content coordinator Erin Rowley to talk about her experience as a caregiver for a loved one with metastatic breast cancer.
What did you find most challenging about being a caregiver?
I guess what is most challenging about being a caregiver is the frustration you feel when all you can do is freshen the pillows or bring a cool drink. You can’t always take away the discomfort. You can’t always take away the heartache. When it’s your child and you’re the mom, it’s your job to make everything better. Mommy kisses it and makes it better. This was beyond the minor boo-boos that you kissed and made better. Cancer’s not a boo-boo.
Being a mother of a breast cancer survivor — because she was a survivor for 14 years — it puts you in a very perplexing place. In the beginning you think, ‘It should have been me.’ And then you have to get beyond that and just be a mom. And being a mom, to me, has always meant being a caregiver.
What advice do you have for caregivers?
After you have found the right medical team, the first thing to do is buy the patient a nice journal book and a good pen, and let them write down what they’re feeling in the middle of the night or what questions they have for the next time they go to the doctor. Let them have a section that’s not so private, so that you can review the questions and know when you go to the doctor with them next that those questions get answered.
And you can listen [to the answers]. Because often, they don’t hear the words. … I think that’s what happens, especially in the early stages of any kind of catastrophic illness, is the person who is ill sits there and knows that the doctor’s lips are moving, but they have no idea what the doctor is saying. I feel like they need another person there with them who can listen and write things down so that that evening, when the patient is thinking ‘What happened today?’ she can go back and read through what was said.
The other thing you can do is make a calendar. There are calendar websites that you can send out to friends and family so they can sign up for meals. They can say ‘On Tuesday, I’m going to make lasagna and I’ll bring salad and I’ll drop it off.’ Someone else may sign up on the calendar to take the kids to the movies, or do laundry. The person with the illness can look at the calendar and see ‘I don’t have to worry about dinner tonight,’ or ‘I don’t have to pick up the kids from school today.’ Everyone says, ‘What can I do for you?’ But the person with the illness doesn’t know what that person is able to do. This way with this calendar, you can set it up and people can sign up and say ‘This is what I’m going to do.’
Is there anything else you would like caregivers to know?
As a caregiver, you have to allow people to take care of you as well. That isn’t always easy, because you’re supposed to be the one taking care. But sometimes you need to step back and allow others to take care of you. … The caregivers need to be kind to themselves, too.