When Merrilyn Ong’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer, she cared for him. Her biggest takeaway from that tough time? Caregivers should never be afraid to ask for help.
Merrilyn Ong was 21 when she became caregiver to her sick father.
It began in 2007, when one day during lunch, he suddenly began displaying stroke-like symptoms. He lost control of the left side of his body and was unable to walk in a straight line. Medical checks revealed a cancerous tumour the size of a tennis ball in the right side of his brain; he had stage four brain cancer. Doctors said he had to have surgery immediately.
“I was shocked and devastated,” says Merrilyn. “With my sister and I about to graduate from university, it was supposed to be time for him to plan for retirement.”
Over the next two years, her father went through radiotherapy, was hospitalised multiple times, and had to have daily blood thinning injections to prevent blood clots from forming and travelling to his lungs. These required help, and Merrilyn stepped up alongside her mum and sister.
Fortunately, Merrilyn’s then employer, a HR consultancy, agreed to a flexible work arrangement that allowed her to accompany her dad to his doctors’ appointments.
Hardest of all, she shares, was watching her father deteriorate as the side eﬀects of the treatment weakened him. “His cancer was very aggressive, so I knew that treatment was more to enhance his quality of life, rather than to ‘cure’ him. When you care for a cancer patient at this stage, you know that the time you have left with him is limited,” she says.
Caring for her dad was exhausting – both physically and mentally – and the pressure was sometimes overwhelming. Merrilyn knew that to be an eﬀective caregiver, she needed to take care of herself as well. Taking breaks to recharge, be it by exercising or going out for a meal with friends, made a huge diﬀerence.
During that stressful period, she also reminded herself that what mattered was ensuring her dad still had a good quality of life and that he didn’t feel like he was a burden to the family.
“As a caregiver, you have to be careful not to let your emotions cloud what the patient wants and needs,” she says. “My family kept him involved, so he played an active role when it came to decision making. We also tried to go about our own lives so that he wouldn’t sense his condition had impacted us much.”
Looking back, Merrilyn says she came through the ups and downs because of the support of family members, as well as a hospice medical team.
It’s why she has, for the past year and a half, been volunteering with the Brain Tumour Society (Singapore), to help caregivers. That kind of support, she says, is invaluable, and caregivers must not be afraid of asking for help.
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