Advice for Cancer Caregivers
Watching someone you love receive a cancer diagnosis is a devastating experience. When a close family member or friend is battling cancer, the emotional stress on the caregiver can be nearly equal to what the patient is experiencing. Most caregivers place their own needs on hold in order to put all their energy into making sure their loved one is getting what they need. What many do not realize is their own battle to cope with this difficult journey.
What does it mean to care for a loved one with cancer? It is a journey that most people hope to never find themselves on. What defines a cancer caregiver is that they are the primary individual responsible for taking care of their family member or loved one who is sick. Usually, this means the caregiver is a spouse, parent, partner, or adult child but not always. While other people may fill in from time to time, the caregiver is a part of all of the medical decision-making and provides support both in the outpatient setting, at the hospital and at home.
Caregivers can embody many roles depending on the condition and health of their sick loved ones. They can be a means of emotional and physical support, transportation, a collaborator with the healthcare team, a personal chef and financial manager and schedule manager. Caregiving is an unpaid position, meaning that the time and resources allocated by the caregiver are coming from them directly. This is why it can take such a toll on individuals, who themselves may need a supportive figure to lean on.
Early detection can save your life. Find information on cancer screenings and learn more about which screenings you may need.
Caring for someone who is sick can be quite demanding. Even if your intentions are pure, you may at times find yourself overwhelmed by the responsibilities you now share and your duty to your loved one. The caregiver paradox is that in order to take care of others, you have to look after yourself.
Here are the strategies I recommend to the caregivers of my patients.
Take care of your physical health. As much as possible, remember to rest, recharge and focus on your own well-being. It may seem selfish to exercise or go out of your way to maintain a healthy diet, but these are small things you can do for yourself that will help you be a better caregiver in the long run.
Share your thoughts and emotions. It's important to communicate as honestly and openly as you can with your loved one. Many caregivers are afraid to show sadness or grief, but these are normal human emotions! While it is good to project confidence and optimism, it is also okay to be transparent with how you are coping.
Socialize with others. As the caretaker, you are under a tremendous amount of pressure and need a support system as well. It’s important to maintain your identity and relationships throughout your loved one’s treatment and recovery process. Spending time with friends and family will provide you with a sense of support and community along the way.
Know your limitations. Do not be afraid to ask for help when you really need it, as it is not your responsibility to shoulder the burden all alone. Friends, other family members and the patient's healthcare team are all groups you can turn to for advice, support, resources or comfort.
Plan for all possibilities in the future. One of the kindest things a caregiver can do for his or herself is to exercise awareness about the situation as a whole. It may seem impossible, but a caregiver must be realistic about all potential outcomes and plan accordingly. Even doing small things like collecting FMLA forms from your place of employment can help reduce stress later.
Do not blame yourself. Many caregivers carry a tremendous amount of guilt that they were not the one who was diagnosed with cancer. If you are feeling this way, you are not alone. However, the what-if game is not a healthy way of coping with cancer, as difficult as this may be to accept.
I often tell new caregivers that the future is the future, and encourage them to do the best they can to live in the moment. When it comes to cancer, there are so many things that are outside of our control, but the positivity of the mind is a powerful tool. Implementing very small changes to decrease stress and maintain an optimistic outlook are steps you can actually take that will make a real difference.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Oct. 1, 2019.