How Cultural Aspects of Caregiving Can Influence Cancer Care

"As a caregiver of a cancer survivor, it is important to recognize your own cultural roots and determine both what type of supports you need, and who can provide them." - Dr. Trivedi

Providing succor to the sick and the vulnerable is a fundamentally human experience. Caring for children, elderly or the ill has provided a deep sense of purpose and meaning to many. Yet, different cultures vary in how they approach caregiving in general, and can shape caregiving of those with cancer.

One way to think of cultural values is the dimensions of “individualism” and “collectivism.” “Individualist” cultures focus on the goals and rights of an individual. Individuals prioritize their personal needs and goals, over those of a larger group. Think “Independence.” Collectivist cultures prioritize the needs of the groups and the interpersonal relationships over the needs of one individual. Think “Interdependence.” Generally speaking, individualist cultures are found among those who identify from Anglo countries, such as USA, Canada, Western Europe, and Scandinavian countries. Collectivist cultures are found in much of Asia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Why is this important in caregiving? In collectivist cultures, the daily needs of the cancer patient may become a priority for a whole family and even a community. People reach out to help both patients and caregivers with support, meals, and even financial assistance. However, caregivers may feel selfish discussing their own caregiver burden, or other emotional needs. In individualist cultures, the patients’ needs are prioritized by the patient and often one primary caregiver. The caregiver takes on increasing amounts of medical and other caregiving tasks, but with limited help from others within the community. In individualist cultures, prioritizing caregiver’s emotional needs may be more natural. Therefore, collectivist cultures may provide better practical support, but less attention may be paid to caregivers’ emotional needs. Individualist cultures may conversely be better at prioritizing caregivers’ emotional needs, but practical supports may suffer.

As a caregiver of a cancer survivor, it is important to recognize your own cultural roots and determine both what type of supports you need, and who can provide them. If you identify as someone from an individualist culture, you may need to actively reach out to your social network and ask for help. Even when people sincerely offer to help, they will expect you to guide them as to the type and frequency of help you receive, for instance, meal drop offs. You may want to take advantage of restaurant food delivery services, respite care, and other home and community-based services. If you identify as someone from a collectivist culture, you may want to consider if you are receiving the types of emotional support you need. You may feel selfish or guilty prioritizing your own needs over those of your loved one with cancer. You may consider attending support groups or psychological counseling, or reach out proactively to close friends or family to share your feelings. These insights can also help guide your conversations with your medical team. Cultural needs are often overlooked in our modern healthcare systems, and it will fall on you to let the medical team know how your cultural context may shape your medical care needs. Let the team know which services you are looking for, and ask them to make any connections as necessary.

No doubt this is an oversimplification of the cultural implications of caregiving, with illustrative examples that may not resonate. Little research exists to guide us in making evidence-based recommendations, and some of our recently funded work will be crucial in guiding such conversations. In the meantime, recognize that culture and caregiving are intertwined, and knowing this can ensure that you get the support you need.

Wishing you a very happy new year,