When a cancer diagnosis hits, it's not just the life of the person with cancer that changes forever but the person standing by their side willing to care for them. Carers come in all shapes and sizes - children, parents, siblings, friends and partners, many of whom, if asked, probably wouldn't recognise they were even a carer. But they are carers and they aren't getting the support they need.
As Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, I've had the privilege of meeting some of these incredible people who day in day out do everything in their power to care for a loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer. They feed them, dress them, give them medication and are the one's there with their wife, father or sister when they are crying out in pain in the small hours of the night. It's a tough job. New research out earlier this week shows that the number of people caring for someone with cancer in the UK has risen to almost 1.5 million.
Our new figures show that not only have the numbers of carers increased by a third in the past five years but friends and family are spending around 17 hours a week looking after loved ones. Some carers are even spending 35 hours a week caring - the same as a full time job - and yet many won't have the pay packet to show for it. To add insult to injury many of these carers feel forced to carry out tasks that they feel unqualified to do. This is a bleak picture made worse by the fact that over half of carers don't receive any support at all. And it's a bleak picture that will persist as more and more people are diagnosed with cancer.
Nida, 24, from London, is one carer whose life changed as a result of cancer. At the age of 18, the unimaginable happened and her father suddenly died. Still reeling from this loss, two years later her family were dealt another devastating blow - her 51-year-old mother, Farhat, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and told she had just six months to live. Just 20 years old, Nida had no choice but to grow up very quickly and became her mother's carer.
Cooking, cleaning, washing, dressing and taking her mother to the bathroom while studying Pharmacy at university, became her life. It was an all-consuming and at times she felt as if she couldn't carry on, but this was her mother- she had no choice but to carry on.
Her mother started having seizures and would often fall to the ground. It was down to Nida to lift her and make sure she didn't choke. Pushed to a mental breaking point she constantly wondered if she was doing it right or whether she was holding her mother's head in the right way to avoid choking. Not only that but, as a small 20-year-old woman, she was physically exhausted, trembling under her mother's weight as she held her body upright after a fall. She was traumatised with no one to turn to. Friends simply couldn't comprehend what was going on at home and she had no other parent to call on.
But thankfully help was out there for Nida. She had a Macmillan nurse who visited her and offered support. What struck Nida most was when the nurse asked: "But how are you Nida?" Many carers just like Nida neglect their own health to hold things together. Occasionally they just need someone to ask: "Are you okay?"
Nida's mother died in 2014 and I'm sure Nida, like many carers, would say that it was a privilege to care for her. But it can also be a terribly lonely responsibility. Knowing you can't cure what is making your loved one sick but can only carry the burden of looking after them must be very isolating. And that's why carers - these courageous people who carry this burden, often with absolute pride and dignity - need all the support they can get. They don't always have the time or energy to find it and that's why health and social care professionals need to let carers know that there is help available from the get-go.
And that's why Macmillan is calling on the government to recognise the specific needs of cancer carers in the new Carers strategy for England and set out a clear plan of how carers will be able to get the help and support they need.
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