Being a caregiver to someone diagnosed with cancer can be quite the juggling act. Roles, responsibilities, and commitments that were in place before cancer don’t just go away. No one checks their schedule for a good place to fit in this vital yet time-consuming role. A cancer diagnosis often comes without warning and without regard for the demands of your time. It can be frustrating to try to fit in all the demands and expectations of what you want to, should, and need to do.
As you try to support and help the person you love, you must also think about your own needs. What helps you get through bad days? Are you able to throw yourself into your work? Do you enjoy sports or a hard workout at the gym? Are movies or books an escape? How can your friends and family best support you?
Remember: It is not selfish to think about yourself. In fact, it is important that you do so. Caring for yourself is a necessary part of being a caregiver. It is likely that you and your loved one have a long, sometimes bumpy, road ahead. Remember that there are a lot of people who are eager to help you both. Learn to say “yes, thank you” to some of their offers and try not to do everything yourself. You and your loved one will benefit in many ways from letting your family and friends help you.
Keep Up With Your Own Healthcare Needs
Caregivers are often so focused on their loved one with cancer that they don’t take time to care for their own health and well-being. Some even feel guilty about caring for their personal health concerns. It is important that you take care of your health, through regular checkups and care for specific concerns. Setting time to care for yourself will benefit your loved one. This time will allow you to better provide care for your loved one and reduce their worry about your health.
Take a Moment to Focus on How You Are Feeling
Have you noticed any new changes in your health? Do you have medical conditions that existed before you became a caregiver? Is there something you have been meaning to do for yourself that you haven’t had time or energy to do? Some important topics to consider for your self-care include:
- Going to your doctor for check-ups
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating healthy meals
- Taking medications as prescribed
Focus on One Goal at a Time
If you have fallen behind in any of these areas, remember that you don’t have to change your routine all at once. Instead, pick one thing at a time that you would like to focus on. Then set a specific and reasonable goal. For example, if you want to exercise, a specific goal could be, “Go on a 15-minute walk this week.” Then schedule the walk into your planner or calendar, just as you would any other important appointment. You may also want to ask a friend or family member to walk with you. This makes it more likely that you will achieve your goal.
Balance Your Time
It can be overwhelming to think about adding more to your already overflowing plate. A caregiver may suddenly find themselves parenting a parent, being the cook/housekeeper, becoming the breadwinner, or all of these. This can be overwhelming.
As a caregiver, you may be so focused on balancing the new roles and demands in your life that you forget to take care of yourself. You may begin to feel out of control. It is OK to know your own strengths and limitations, to recognize when you need help, and to ask for help. Taking time for you and setting priorities will help you regain some control. It will also give you more time and energy to be the caregiver you would like to be.
Consider these steps to assist you in setting aside time for your health and wellness needs:
Figure out priorities. Make a list of tasks. Decide what is important, what can be let go, and what needs to be modified. You may have to say no to some things and ask for help with others. People may surprise you in their willingness to step up and help.
Accept your limitations. You can only do so much. There is only one of you and you can’t always do everything by yourself. Accepting limitations does not mean you are letting your loved one down. It is okay to let others help where they can (i.e., chores, errands, homecare assistance).
Ask for help. There are some things that only you can do. There are other things you can let go of by hiring someone or asking for help from friends, family, or local organizations.
Setting up a network of resources can give you support while letting you focus on the most important caregiving activities. Share your to-do list and ask for specific help in areas most needed. Allow friends and neighbors to take turns bringing meals. Or consider looking into home-delivered groceries or meal services.
Keep good records. Staying organized can help you manage — and balance — your time better. In addition to appointments and treatments, it is important to keep track of useful contacts, agency resources, insurance information, and health care information. This will let you better manage the overall situation.
Engage others. In addition to friends and family, this may include your employer (or school). Make them aware of your situation so you both can make adjustments if needed based on your caregiver role. This may include learning more about workplace policies.
Community resources. There are local resources that can help with in-home care, transportation, meal programs, and adult/childcare. Contact your healthcare team for a list of resources available to you. You can also ask for resources such as alert buttons for help, professional caregiver assistance, and in-home healthcare.
More Tips to Keep in Mind
To take care of yourself and your loved one, you may find that you need to:
Develop a "New Normal"
Life is not the same after cancer for the survivor or for those who love him or her. When someone you care about has or has had cancer, you need to develop what is often called a “new normal.” For survivorship, this means putting the reality of cancer into your future dreams. It does NOT mean giving up your dreams (retiring to an island, traveling, fishing for hours), just adjusting your dreams to fit. As things change, your new normal may also change.
As time goes on, life may feel like it used to, especially as your loved one finds they have their energy back, they return to work or start doing other things they used to do. But there also may be times when a regular follow-up appointment, a new lump, or a fever makes you fearful or worried that the cancer has returned. You may find yourself up in the middle of the night, unable to concentrate at work, or edgy until you get the “all clear” signal that everything is all right. Over time, you and your loved one will get used to, prepare for, and manage, the ups and downs.
Learn Coping Skills
Every person manages stress, worry, and other emotions differently, no matter what the situation. The ways people deal with emotions are often referred to as coping skills. It is good to become aware of how you cope when things become hard, intense, or stressful. You also may want to work on improving some of your skills.
Learning certain coping skills can help caregivers meet their own needs while supporting their loved one. These skills include being able to:
- Define the problem
- Decide what parts of the problem you can and cannot control
- Look for advice and information to deal with the problem
- Make a plan to deal with the problem
- Take action to solve the problem
- If the problem cannot be “solved,” learning a new way of thinking about it so you can accept it
- Become aware of your feelings
- Find a support group, so you have a place to talk to others
Pay Attention to Your Health
Make sure you take time to care for your own health. Take time to see your own healthcare providers, if you need to. It is also important to take care of yourself and find ways to relax and take breaks. Make a list of relaxing activities you’d like to do for yourself, and set aside time to do them.
Long-term survivorship is a journey for both the person who was once diagnosed with cancer and for you. It gets easier with practice, but most report that life after cancer is never completely the same as it was pre-cancer. On a positive note, survivors and loved ones report a variety of positive changes in their outlook and relationship after having faced a cancer diagnosis.
Don't Ignore Your Emotions
It is important not to ignore feelings of depression or anxiety, but instead to seek help. Many support groups exist for people with cancer and their loved ones. In addition to providing support, these groups provide a place where you can get tips from other caregivers who are in the same situation. Individual counseling can be very helpful, as can medication (when appropriate) to relieve anxiety and depression.
Continue to ask your loved one what is most helpful to him or her, and seek help for yourself when you need it. Try not to be too self-critical. Don’t expect that you or your loved one will always do everything perfectly. A serious illness is both difficult and challenging. By just being there, you are helping.