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For caregivers, support is key
Survivors stories: A series throughout May celebrating Relay for Life
Joan Bancroft learned as caregiver for her daughter, Kayla Delapena, that information and support is vital.

For every cancer survivor, there is an army of caregivers standing behind them, supporting their every move.

And it's not just parents, siblings or children of someone with cancer who count - it's anyone who has offered support in any way. Which is why this year's Relay for Life is recognizing caregivers this year as part of its annual festivities.

This year's Relay for Life will take place May 30 at Flowery Branch High School's football field. The overnight event will honor cancer survivors, those who have succumbed to the disease and anyone who has offered support throughout the years. The relay walk begins at 7 p.m. and lasts through the night, until sunrise the next morning.

Reaching out to other caregivers is something Joan Bancroft feels strongly about supporting. Her experiences as a caregiver for her daughter, Kayla Delapena, have taught her how important it is to not only get as much information as you can but to also have someone to talk to.

"I gained a lot of weight. People kept telling me, ‘You need to go talk to somebody, you need to get help.' I was obsessed," she said of her state while caring for her daughter, who had a pituitary tumor, or craniopharyngioma in her brain. The orange-sized tumor was removed after an 18-hour surgery at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston in Atlanta.

Kayla, now 15, was diagnosed with the tumor just before she turned 4. Soon after, a second tumor was removed after growing on top of the shunt doctors had put in her brain to drain excess fluid.

Today, Kayla is a student at North Hall Middle School, where she is learning job skills. She is legally blind, with just a pinhole of vision, but has a love of life, loves her "crazy" dogs and takes part in Relay for Life every year.

Bancroft said she didn't realize until after the worst of it - after multiple operations and chemotherapy - how her own personal state had deteriorated. She had gained weight and developed diabetes, and that was affecting how she cared for Kayla, she said.

"I was feleing terrible; I couldn't take care of her, and at that point we were through the crisis and we were dealing with, ‘What do you do with a child who has special needs?' Because she's in a certain place, there's certain limitations. I was realizing part of me didn't want to accept that."

It's very important, Bancroft said, for a caregiver to have someone to talk to.

"An outside source that, one, could say ‘Joan, this isn't good for you,'" she said. "But I didn't know how to deal with it. Everybody turned to me - it was all me. And sometimes I felt overwhelmed.

"But if I could do it again, I'd take care of myself. Now I know that I'm not in control ... it's not in my hands."

Gail Schneider, fundraising and volunteer coordinator for Challenged Child and Friends and also a board member for Relay for Life, said the American Cancer Society doesn't just fight for a cure, it also is instrumental in offering support for both caregivers and cancer patients. Anyone who has a question about cancer, she said - even at 3 a.m. - can call 800-227-2345 to talk to a real person.

"The Cancer Society does a lot of things besides research, but to me research and the drugs is a big part of it," she said, adding that the organization helped her sister with wigs when she was going through treatment for ovarian cancer. She specifically remembers one holiday when the family gathered at her sister's home for dinner.

"When she came to the door she had this long flowing wig on, and it was like down to here and we all laughed and we called her Rapunzel," she said. "And then she'd go back in the back and come out and have this short blonde wig on, and then next time she'd disappear and she had this long black wig on. She had fun with it."

Schneider said she participates in Relay for Life because cancer is prevalent in her family.

"It's pretty much made the salt of my family," she said. "My mother had ovarian cancer; she died when she was 47. Her sister had breast cancer and she died at 45, and their father had lung cancer, and he died the same year that they did. That was a tough year.

"I think what God gave me to get through that year was my oldest son was born, later that year."

She recalls how her mother held his baby shoes in her hands before she died, never knowing her first grandson.

Caregivers play a special role in the fight against cancer, she said.

"Anyone who has ever taken care of someone - a caregiver isn't just someone like ... me, it can be even the person who prays for someone, or taking a meal over for their family.

"Anybody who's supported someone with cancer, and had somebody in their family with cancer, they are a caregiver. Some people don't think of themselves as a caregiver."

Bancroft recommended that anyone who is a caregiver, no matter how big or small they see their job, should try to seek out as much information as they can.

"Information was a real big part of making it through it, and understanding what I was dealing with," she said.

"And I think I'd tell caretakers to try and sort of accept things a bit sooner ... I would hope that someone who has an illness or whatever it is their dealing with, to make it the best they can. Good things come out of bad circumstances."