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A college grad's toughest test

When you're 22 and about to graduate from college, thisis your vision of the future: job, car, apartment, independence.

That was Courtney Kreiser last December. Then the senior psychology major at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg overheard her mom, Carleen Josephson, say she had lung cancer.

So along with the senior stress, Courtney, an only child, spent much of her final semester worried about her mom in New Port Richey and driving her to appointments at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa.

After Courtney graduated in May, she didn't hesitate to move back home with her mom, whose advance stage lung cancer affected a vocal chord, weakened her voice and left her feeling tired.

Instead of working on resumes and going on job interviews, for the past four months Courtney has been shuttling her mom to doctor visits, running errands, cooking, washing and cleaning.

Roles are reversed. Sometimes Courtney feels like she's the parent to her 57-year-old mother, who lived alone before Courtney moved back home.

How do you prepare to be a cancer caregiver, whether you're 22 or 72? Cancer is never convenient.

The unexpectedness of a cancer diagnosis often leaves caregivers with emotional baggage. How do you cope with this strange, new normal?

By reaching out for help, said Miriam Innocenti, a social worker at Moffitt.

Innocenti will lead a daylong training session at Moffitt - Strength for Caring - on Oct. 14 for Courtney and other cancer caregivers.

Open to the public, this free program is designed to give caregivers - the spouses, family and friends - tools to cope during this most difficult time.

The session is an opportunity for caregivers to reach out, share experiences and learn the value of communication, because living with a cancer patient takes a heavy emotional, social, and psychological toll.

One of the first things caregivers must understand, Innocenti said, is that their feelings - isolation, guilt, resentment, fear and anger - are all normal. Caregivers also must realize that their situation isn't unique. Other people are taking the same journey; others are having to cope with similar circumstances, burdened by the same feelings of inadequacy.

Courtney remembers that feeling. But she has learned. She understands what would happen if she didn't reach out for help.

"If you don't have emotional support, you are going to break down," she said. That's hard-earned wisdom gotten from watching your mother struggle.

Courtney also better appreciates her decision to put her career on hold while she focuses on her mom. What could be more important?

***

WHAT: Strength for Caring, training for cancer caregivers.

WHEN: Oct. 14, 10 a.m to 3 p.m. Reservations can be made by Oct. 9 by calling 1-888-MOFFITT (1-888-663-3488)

WHERE: H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, 12902 Magnolia Drive , Tampa.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

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