Caregiver Self-Care is Important
According to a new study from the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 10 million people will die from cancer in 2018 and an additional 18.1 million new cases of cancer will develop this year. I admit that I felt a lump in my throat after reading that for the first time.
Simply put, this will greatly strain – if not overstrain – our hospitals and health care system. There has already been a strong shift from hospital care to hospice care, which has in turn forced spouses, siblings, children and friends into the difficult role of being a cancer caregiver.
The time, love, and patience this requires is simply incalculable. And this type of care could never be replicated in a hospital with an army of skilled doctors and nurses. But increasingly, caregivers are falling victim to anxiety, depression, illness, weight gain and more as they navigate through a myriad of physical and emotional stressors.
If you are supporting a loved one with cancer, taking care of yourself is critical. This article will help you navigate the pitfalls and obstacles standing in your way so you can be a healthier person and a better caregiver.
A Physical and Mental Commitment
When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, nearly everything else in your life comes to a screeching halt. The focus from that point forward is helping your loved one through a litany of appointments, tests and treatments. You commit your mind, body, and soul to it.
Without a doubt, this commitment means the world to your loved one. And it can be a very rewarding experience for you, too. But this commitment can also take a heavy toll on you. The exhaustion, worry, physical and emotional demands, the lack of adequate resources, and more – early on they may not feel like much but they accumulate every day. Each week feels a little heavier than the last.
And rarely do caregivers consider their own needs when helping a loved one fight cancer. Rarely do they ask themselves the hard questions to see if they are going to come out of this as healthy as they came into it.
“How will caring for a loved one with cancer affect my physical and mental health?”
“Is the burden too heavy for me to manage indefinitely?”
“Are there people who can help me?”
These questions are important because caregivers often shift all their attention on a loved one’s health. Meanwhile, the very act of being a cancer caregiver can be detrimental to your health in multiple ways.
Caregivers: The Invisible Victims of Cancer
In many ways, these caregivers are the invisible victims of cancer. I say “invisible” because even though there is plenty of research and statistics regarding the toll on being a caregiver, I don’t believe that the caregivers and the medical community take adequate action about it.
Studies show that between 46 to 59 percent of caregivers are clinically depressed. Compared to non-caregivers, they are more likely to have a chronic illness (such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure) and are more likely to be overweight.
Other research shows that stress hormones in caregivers are 23 percent higher than in non-caregivers and their immune responses are 15 percent lower.
Why exactly are caregivers at such an elevated risk? Quite simply, because they are making risky health decisions. For example, caregivers often:
- Do not get adequate sleep
- Develop poor eating habits
- Do not exercise often
- Do not take care of themselves when they are ill
- Postpone or fail to make necessary medical appointments for themselves
- Use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs as coping mechanism
I can’t ignore the irony here. While you are giving everything you have to strengthen the life of a loved one with cancer, your own body is weakening.
Self-Care Strategies for Caregivers
In no way am I suggesting that you stop caring for your loved one. But I do suggest that you consider how you can take better care of yourself. I understand that this can seem like a selfish thought. Or maybe it appears logistically impossible. Or maybe you just want to keep on keeping on even with the consequences in clear sight.
All I can say is that I strongly urge you to reconsider because if you neglect your own needs, you could be the next person sick in bed with a loved one caring for you.
Here are some ways that you can begin taking better care of yourself starting today:
Identify barriers and stressors: Knowing what you are up against is crucial to overcoming it. When you identify what’s in your way to better self-care, you can develop plans to work around those barriers or – even better – break them down. Similarly, identifying the sources of your stress is important to mitigating them or finding an outlet for them. For example, maybe the source of your stress isn’t actually caring for your loved one, but rather understanding the languages of the medical and insurance communities. By getting help with those, you remove a tremendous source of stress from your caregiver role.
Identify what you can and can’t control: Understand that you personally cannot love the cancer out of your loved one’s body. In fact, that’s one of many things that you cannot control as a caregiver. When you try to change the unchangeable, you will only increase your stress. Focus on what you can change because even small changes have big and positive effects, including stress reduction.
Set self-care goals and develop plans to achieve them: Goals are just words on paper without plans to achieve them. For example, if your self-care goals are getting more exercise, eating healthier, and attending to your own health needs, your plans for them will determine the likelihood of your success. Exercise takes time so you need to plan how you will set that time aside. Eating better requires preparation so you need to find healthy snacks and recipes and plan to set aside time to prepare them.
Ask for help: You might feel like you aren’t doing enough – that there is never enough time in the day to care for your loved one, let alone care for yourself. Time is perhaps the most important, yet fleeting, commodity for caregivers. Asking for and receiving help from others gives you two things: You get the help you need and you get time to care for yourself. For example, if a friend can care for your loved one for three hours every Thursday morning, that’s three hours in which you can sleep in, read, exercise, pray, meditate, or do anything else that can recharge your batteries.
These tips are just the tip of the iceberg. The Family Care Alliance is dedicated to helping caregivers just like you. Its guide to self-care is truly invaluable, and I strongly encourage you to read it before setting self-care goals and planning action on them.
Go from Invisible Victim to Invincible Caregiver
A loved one’s cancer diagnosis can upend your life and transform your role to them. Your care is invaluable but it can only be as good as the care you give yourself. Always be mindful of your health – stress levels, happiness, diet, exercise, and more. Identify barriers to self-care and develop goals and plans to stay healthy.
- Matthews, Brian. “Caregivers: The Invisible Victims.” GeneSmart. Last accessed Sept. 23, 2018.
- Molina, Brett. “WHO: Nearly 10 Million People Will Die of Cancer This Year.” USA Today. Published Sept. 13, 2018.
Last Updated: October 4, 2018