As a nurse at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Christie Santure primarily focused first on the patients.

But she became aware of a bigger picture about five years ago when a woman whose husband was going through chemotherapy approached her.

“She was very emotional,” says Santure, BSN, RN, OCN, a senior professional nurse II at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “She was dealing with a lot of stress, and she needed some support.”

Realizing UPMC Hillman had a need for a program that offered support to cancer caregivers, Santure decided to create one. She founded “Caring for the Caregiver,” an educational and support group for loved ones of cancer patients that meets twice a month.

The program has filled an important role in UPMC Hillman’s mission of providing complete, compassionate cancer care.

“I think seeing beyond the patient, that’s been the biggest thing — seeing how important that person that’s sitting beside the patient is,” Santure says. “And realizing that they can be struggling every bit as much as that patient is in their own way. And that their struggles are so different and if we want to provide great care, we have to look at them. We have to see them as well, and we have to realize that they are a very important aspect of this, providing great, wonderful care to all the patients.”

‘This Is Going to Be My Project’

Santure became a nurse about 40 years ago and joined UPMC Hillman in 2008 when she moved to Pittsburgh. She had been working as a treatment room nurse at Hillman when her patient’s wife approached her about support groups.

“That was the moment that made me think, and that was the moment that I said, ‘This is going to be my project,'” she says.

Santure surveyed dozens of caregivers of UPMC Hillman patients to see if they would be interested in a support group. When those surveys got a positive response, it grew Santure’s interest.

Although Santure had plenty of experience in one-on-one interactions as a nurse, she says she was unsure about leading a group. She reached out to a group counselor to ask him for advice.

After six to eight months of planning and preparation, “Caring for the Caregiver” began. Eight people, all loved ones of UPMC Hillman patients, attended the first meeting in 2018.

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‘We Give Everyone the Opportunity to Talk’

It took some time for “Caring to the Caregiver” to become what it is now.

At first, the meetings included educational sessions — such as how to administer anti-nausea medication to cancer patients. But after surveying the group, Santure found that they preferred just coming together to talk and support each other.

“We ask them at the beginning to share a little bit about their caregivers’ story and what’s going on with them,” Santure says. “And then from there, you know, we usually will say, ‘Does anyone have anything they’d like to talk about?’ So, we give everyone the opportunity to talk, and that’s when things just kind of get rolling. There isn’t a structure to it. It’s just all conversation, and they end up asking each other questions and sharing hints.”

The shared experience of caregiving helps people connect, Santure says.

“Someone could literally sit in the meeting and just cry and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to cry because I didn’t want to cry around my family,’ or, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to share how stressed I’m feeling because I don’t want my family to really know what’s going on,'” she says.

UPMC Hillman’s Wellness and Integrative Oncology Program hosts “Caring for the Caregiver.” Santure co-leads the meetings with Joni Sturgill, MSCP, a counseling specialist who teaches stress reduction with methods that include mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, and yoga.

In addition to the group conversation, “Caring for the Caregiver” meetings often include education about relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises.

A major focus of the program is self-care.

“It’s so valuable, so important to them that they understand that if they don’t take care of themselves, they’re going to get burned out,” Santure says. “And then they’re not going to have the energy to be able to help care for their loved one.”

The caregivers are there for each other in their most difficult times.

“You think you’re Superman and you can do it all yourself,” says group member Tim King, whose wife has cancer. “At some moment, every human being has a wall, and you hit it. At that point, you’re not functional. You’re not helping yourself; you’re certainly not helping them. If I hadn’t found this group, if I hadn’t been part of this group, I have no idea where I’d be, but I’m sure it’d be a very dark place.”

Still Caring for Caregivers During COVID-19

“Caring for the Caregiver” had been going for about two years when it ran into an unexpected obstacle: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of hospital safety precautions, the group could no longer meet in person. And because Santure hadn’t collected contact information for group members, it became difficult to track them down for meetings.

Eventually, group members got in touch with Santure at UPMC Hillman, and the program resumed virtually over Zoom. The group continues to meet twice a month.

Despite the changes made necessary by the pandemic — and the technical snafus that can come with virtual meetings — the important work continues. Santure says virtual meetings attract about eight members, compared to 12 to 14 for in-person. But those who attend continue to support each other.

“I think that’s the best part, is when they leave saying, ‘I’m so thankful to know that someone feels the same way that I feel,'” Santure says.

‘This Group Has Touched the Entire Community’

For a program that began with an unexpected conversation, “Caring for the Caregiver” has had a large impact.

Santure won the 2020 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing from CURE Media Group for her work with the program. She also has won the UPMC HOPE Award, UPMC ACES award, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing Cameo of Caring award.

But what makes Santure happiest about the program’s success is the lasting relationships it fosters. Several of the group members have been there from the program’s earliest days. Some continue to come back even after their loved ones recover from cancer. Friendships have been built; some group members even meet up outside of the group for coffee.

“This group has touched the entire community,” Santure says.

It may soon touch a larger community of people. Santure says staff from other UPMC locations have contacted her with interest in starting their own caregiver support groups. She hopes other UPMC Hillman locations will begin their own groups — especially when in-person meetings eventually resume.

“The thing I think I’m most proud of, after all my years as a nurse at Hillman Cancer Center, is starting the ‘Caring for the Caregiver’ group,” Santure says. “Because if they don’t take care of themselves, they’re not going to be able to take care of their loved one. I’m so thankful that we started the group to support them through this and help them get through this rough time in their life.”

For more information on “Caring for the Caregiver,” call 412-692-4724 or visit us online. For the Zoom meeting link and password, email Christie Santure or Joni Sturgill.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.