Tips for Cancer Caregivers

By Sara Goldberger, LCSW-R

Caring for a family member or friend with cancer is often very challenging. The experience can be exhausting both mentally and physically, but it actually becomes even more so when you don’t take care of yourself. I use a metaphor of a watering can and a garden to drive home this point. If your loved one is a garden, it needs water. If you are the watering can, you will run out of water to nurture the garden. Filling the watering can from a larger reservoir will make sure that there is always enough water to help tend to the garden.

Finding out that a loved one has cancer can be overwhelming. Cancer affects not only the person diagnosed but all those who care about that person. You may be wondering, What should I do now? or How can I help?

The following 10 tips are intended to help you tackle the challenges of caring for someone diagnosed with cancer. Here you will find information and resources for caregivers—those who provide emotional, spiritual, financial, or logistical support to a cancer patient.

1. Find Your Support System
When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it is an emotional time. Roles and expectations may change (or you may wonder if they are going to change). Sometimes it is difficult to talk with your loved one about your feelings because you both have so much going on. Many find that one of the best ways to cope with stress, uncertainty, and loneliness is to talk with others who share similar experiences. You can learn from personal experiences how to be effective in your new role as a caregiver.

Support groups are a great way to reduce the isolation that you might feel. You can be with others who truly understand what you are going through. Often these groups are great sources of information and practical tips. There are several different kinds of groups, including face-to-face, telephone, and online.

A support system may not necessarily come in the form of a group. Individual support is also available through your healthcare provider, faith-based communities, and toll-free helplines. The important thing is to get some form of support.

2. Gather Information
There is truth to the phrase Knowledge is power. There is no way to completely grasp the ups and downs of a cancer diagnosis and treatment—and you should not be expected to. Being armed with knowledge may help you accommodate your loved one’s needs, however, and put you at ease because you know what to expect.

Learn about the cancer diagnosis your loved one has received—including its stages, recommended treatments, and the side effects of medications.  Caring for someone with cancer is easier when you understand the basics about the diagnosis, treatment, and side effects. You will feel more in control when you know what to expect.  DIRECTORY OF SUPPORT & INFORMATION RESOURCES

3. Recognize a “New Normal”
Patients and caregivers alike report feeling a loss of control after a cancer diagnosis. Many caregivers are asked for advice about medical decisions or managing family finances and need to take on new day-to-day chores. It is likely that your tasks as a caregiver will necessitate new routines—after all, you are taking on a new role in the patient’s life as well as your own.

Maintaining a balance between caring for your loved one and the daily activities of your own life can be a challenge. It may be helpful to identify the parts of your life that you can still control—such as your own health and relationships. In doing this you will be able to create a strategy for integrating new routines with old ones.

It may also help to acknowledge that your home life, finances, and friendships may change for a period of time. Sometimes the laundry might not get done, or maybe takeout will replace home cooking. Try to manage each day’s priority as it comes—it is alright to put other tasks on hold.

Take a deep breath and realize that the support you provide is priceless.

4. Relieve Your Mind, Recharge Your Body
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the tasks of caregiving. Taking minibreaks is an easy way to replenish your energy and lower your stress. Try simple activities like taking a walk around the block or closing your eyes for 10 minutes in a comfortable chair. Taking time for yourself is not selfish—it is necessary. You are working hard to provide and secure the best care for your loved one. Time spent recharging your mind and body will allow you to avoid depression and burnout. Research shows that the person you are caring for benefits most when you are healthy and your life is balanced.

Seek ways to rejuvenate your spirit. Everyone holds beliefs about life, its meaning, and its value. Many people have a spiritual dimension, whether or not they subscribe to a particular religion. Feeling spiritually connected can provide comfort and may also help you put your situation into perspective. Prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices can ease distress. Finding your own ways to meet this need may also help you recharge.

5. Take Comfort in Others
Caregiving can sometimes take a great deal of time. Many caregivers feel a loss of personal time over the course of the illness. Keep in mind that while you are taking on new and additional responsibilities, you are still allowed a life of your own.

Many seasoned caregivers advise that you continue to be involved with your circle of friends and family. For some, remaining involved might mean playing an active role in school or community activities. For others, it may mean weekly visits with a best friend. Only you can determine the level of involvement that is right for you, and that level may change over time. No matter your choice, it is certain that you will appreciate having someone to turn to as you care for your loved one.

6. Plan for the Future
A common feeling among caregivers and people with cancer is uncertainty. It is hard to know what the future holds. Although planning may be difficult, it can help. Try to schedule fun activities on days when your loved one is not feeling the side effects of treatment. You can also give yourselves something to look forward to by planning together how you will celebrate the end of treatment or a phase of treatment.

Planning for the future in the long term is also important and can be increasingly stressful for a caregiver when, sometimes, two futures are being planned—one based on survival and the other based on the possibility of losing your loved one. All of us, whether we have been diagnosed with cancer or not, should have in place necessary paperwork pertaining to a healthcare agent, a power of attorney, and a will. You can ask your loved one if he or she needs or wants assistance. It is in everyone’s best interest that you begin this process sooner rather than later. Having essential paperwork under control will allow you to have peace of mind.

7.  Accept a Helping Hand
It is okay to have helpers. In fact, you may find that learning to let go and to say yes to offers of help will ease your anxiety and lift your spirits. People often want to chip in but aren’t quite sure what type of assistance you need. It is helpful to make a list of all caregiving tasks, small to large. That way when someone asks, “Is there anything I can do?” you are able to offer them specific choices.

8. Be Mindful of Your Health
To be strong for your loved one, you need to take care of yourself. It is easy to lose sight of your own health when you are focused on your loved one. But if your own health is in jeopardy, who will take care of your loved one? Be sure to tend to any physical ailments of your own that arise—this includes scheduling regular checkups and screenings. And remember what Mom always said: eat well and get enough sleep.

9. Consider Exploring Stress Management Techniques
Even if you have never practiced mind-body exercises before, you may find that meditation, yoga, listening to music, or simply breathing deeply will relieve stress. Research shows that these practices can enhance the immune system as well as the mind’s ability to influence bodily functions and relieve symptoms.

Mind-body (or stress reduction) interventions use a variety of techniques to help you relax mentally and physically. Examples include meditation, guided imagery, and healing therapies that tap your creative outlets, such as art, music, and dance. If this interests you, seek out guidance or instruction to help you become your own expert on entering into a peaceful, rejuvenated state. Managing your stress is an excellent way to make sure the watering can stays full.

10. Do What You Can, Admit What You Can’t
Throughout these 10 tips, we have touched on many tasks associated with caring for a loved one. Even seasoned caregivers find themselves caught up in the whirlwind of appointments, daily errands, and medicine doses. No one can do everything. It is okay to acknowledge your limits. Come to terms with feeling overwhelmed (it will happen) and resolve to be firm when deciding what you can and cannot handle on your own. Your loved one needs you. You cannot do this alone. Together you can get through.