By Greta Greer, MSW, LCSW
Taking care of someone you love who has cancer is one of the most important roles you'll ever have. It could also be the most difficult one.
Stress is one of the most common challenges that caregivers face, especially those caring for someone with cancer. It's not easy learning to balance all your regular responsibilities, help your loved one, AND take care of your own health and well-being.
As a result, caregivers often ignore their own physical and emotional health. It could be because they have less time, are too stressed, have less money, feel guilty for taking time for themselves, or simply forget. Whatever the reason, it puts caregivers at much higher risk for health problems than people who aren't in a caregiving role.
You may be surprised to suddenly realize that it's been ages since you spent a day out with friends, had a good night's sleep, or simply enjoyed an entire meal without interruption. And what's going on with those tight muscles, wandering thoughts, or uncomfortable feelings?
If you don't know, it's no wonder! The more caregiving tasks and regular responsibilities you have to juggle - job, kids, parents, meals, finances, insurance and a hundred other important tasks-the easier it is to lose track of yourself in the midst of it all.
Here's the bottom line. You can't afford to continue down that path of self-neglect without risking your health.
You're probably thinking, "Yeah, right. Like I have a choice!" But you do have choices. When we're under a lot of stress, we often lose sight of that.
My own journey as a caregiver taught me that making time for myself was definitely easier said than done. Walking in the shoes of a caregiver was a real eye-opener despite my professional experience helping cancer patients and their families improve coping skills and find resources. It was amazingly easy to disregard much that I knew. Maybe I thought I was strong enough to ignore myself for a while or was immune to the risks. We call this kind of thinking "denial." Sometimes caregivers need a nudge from family members, friends, or a health care professional to realize they're slipping into an unhealthy pattern.
So, to everyone who is a caregiver, I humbly submit three key caregiver self-care rules.
First: If you are the primary caregiver, ask for help! You may need help getting information or emotional support, finding resources, or figuring out who can assist with certain caregiving tasks. It's hard for many folks to ask for help, but the fact is that caregiving almost always involves more work than one person can manage alone. Making a list is a great way to plan ahead and get organized. Write out all the things that need to be done. Include the things you need to do for yourself, too. Put physical activity, alone time, health check-ups, relaxation exercises, and fun things on your list. Be specific. For example, walk 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Next, mark the things on your list that someone can help you with such as picking up the kids from school on Tuesdays or mowing the lawn every other Saturday. You can also ask a friend or another family member to keep your loved one company, or be available to them if they need help, while you go to the movies or get a medical check-up.
And finally, accept the fact that you, too, are a priority "item." You are NOT being selfish to take care of you own health and well-being. In fact, studies indicate that taking care of yourself can actually help you be a better caregiver. Research conducted by the American Cancer Society shows that cancer caregivers who regularly practice self-care improve their quality of life.
Self-care is a win-win for all involved, so be sure you help yourself out. Plan ahead. Eat well. Exercise. Get your cancer screening tests and any other tests your doctor recommends. Don't use tobacco. Limit how much alcohol you drink. Watch for signs of stress or mood changes. Do things that help you relax. Make time for hobbies or other things that you enjoy. Go easy on yourself. Be kind and forgiving towards yourself and others. Ask for help from friends, family members, and organizations like the American Cancer Society that can provide information, resources, and emotional support.
Our Cancer Survivors Network, an online community of cancer caregivers and their loved ones with cancer, is a warm and welcoming place to share your experiences, get support, and learn practical tips.
For information about self-care for caregivers, go to cancer.org/caregivers or check out the American Cancer Society book Caregiving: A Step-by-Step Resource for Caring for the Person With Cancer at Home.
Greer is director of survivor programs for the American Cancer Society.