The Unique Struggles of Being Both an Oncology Pharmacist, Caregiver for a Loved One With Cancer

Sarah Wheeler, PharmD, BCOP, clinical pharmacy specialist in Hematology/Oncology at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, discusses some of the unique struggles that come from being an oncology pharmacist and a caregiver.

Pharmacy Times interviewed Sarah Wheeler, PharmD, BCOP, clinical pharmacy specialist in Hematology/Oncology at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, on her session at the Hematology/Oncology Pharmacy Association 2022 annual conference session titled ‘And the Title We Didn’t Train for: Navigating the Balance Between Being a Caregiver AND an Oncology Pharmacist.’

During this discussion, Wheeler explains some of the unique struggles that come from being an oncology pharmacist and a caregiver.

Sarah Wheeler: So for me, I have spent a lot of my life being a caregiver. My dad was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer when I was 19, and then my mama was diagnosed after that. I was actually—I always talk about how old I was when he was diagnosed, and I don’t even know how old I was when she was diagnosed—but, regardless, she was alive for 9 and a half years with her cancer, he was alive for almost 4 [years].

So for a good chunk of my life, I've been a caregiver, and then, for this last almost 9 years, [I’ve been] an oncology pharmacist. So, there's been a big overlap there. I can tell you about before, when I was just a caregiver, it was a little overwhelming navigating through some of those barriers, and kind of processing what does this mean [and] what does that mean. I think that's another good thing that caregivers can do is to help be a second set of ears and hear what's going on and help your patient to understand what's going on.

So I think that, as my knowledge level increases, I got to be a better translator, if you will, had a better idea of what was going on and be able to explain that to my family. Because I got used to being a translator for my family, I could kind of learn how to be a translator for my patients as well. So being a caregiver, knowing what it's like on the other side of the bed, I'm very cognizant of what words I use when I'm speaking with patients. If I can tell that they're confused about the concept, I speak a lot of times in analogies because people really understand analogies. So I’ll give them different analogies that they can use—kind of like, this has nothing to do with oncology—but an inhaler, whenever you get an inhaler, you have to prime it first, you have to do it, just like when you get a new [soap] pump. So, you have to push the pump to get the soap to come out—it's the same concept.

So speaking in these kind of analogies or making different jokes or things with them can be helpful for them to understand. I think being on the other side of that, I do really understand the importance of that. I also joke about how if I can get my grandma to understand, I can get anybody to understand.

So I think about that, too. There are different levels of health literacy and exposure for people because I've had to work with that with people in my own family. So that's a thing that I think I've learned, being a caregiver and being an oncology pharmacist. Then using some of the things I've learned taking care of my mom and my dad, I can give first-hand experience, ‘Hey, when this happened, I did this,’ or ‘Hey, when this happens, this can be helpful,’ or listen to some of my other patients and give advice to them based on things that they found to be helpful. Just being able to understand, have an empathetic and understanding ear, and be like, ‘I get that, I hear that, I hear you.’

I really understand the value of acknowledging where someone's at and acknowledging their feelings, validating their feelings, and I think that's important. I think that I really realized that I really appreciate the people that validated ours, that I really tried to make a habit of validating other people's feelings as well and making sure that they feel heard. I think that's an important thing that we all can do as health care providers is making sure we take time to listen to our patients. I think being an oncology pharmacist that has a caregiver background has made me be better about being cognizant about their struggles and what that feels like and how much just listening to them talk for a little bit really makes a difference.