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The American Cancer Society

Cancer Caregivers, Don't Forget Yourselves

August 02, 2011

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.

Filed Under:

Caregiving | Greta Greer

Comments

8/2/2011 1:21:42 PM #

Myles Beskind

Couldn't agree more. As a two-time survivor, I know how hard it can be to be a caregiver. I wrote a book called Welcome to the Cancer Club with caregivers in mind and I say in the book (tongue in cheek), "You're no good to us if you're falling apart too!"

Thank you ACS and thank you caregivers! You rock!

(the book is on Amazon if anyone's interested)

Myles Beskind

8/3/2011 8:09:03 AM #

Joseph E. Bauer

Greta,

         A super post ! -  Having conducted social network and social support research previously, your suggestions for the caregiver ring very true.  What I have found is that it is easier for the person needing help/under stress to ask people for 'tangible' kinds of support (i.e. ride to store, help with shopping or housework, even money), but more difficult to ask for the 'socio-emotional' kinds of support (i.e. having someone to listen to you and help you work through problems, to offer a kind word - and more of a 'confidante' - someone to share worries, secrets, fears, hopes, joys, etc.).  My research (with aged African Americans) shows that the socio-emotional issues are relatively the more important and analogous to the 'chicken soup for the soul' kinds of things.  Both kinds/types of support are useful in both mediating and moderating the impacts of acute and chronic stressors and their impact on physical and psychological health, but having a 'confidante' and getting those socio-emotional social supports are crucial.  Many cancer survivors, who tend to be older, tend to have significant losses to their social support networks and often are left 'confidante-less'.  The Cancer Survivor's Network is a dramatic experiment in utilizing an 'online strategy' - and something that we need to evaluate.  I see CSN as providing a bridge/ distant social connections that supports and bolsters people in times of great need trying to adapt and cope with a horrific disease, while maintaining a sense of dignity.

                         Joe

Joseph E. Bauer

8/7/2011 1:21:03 PM #

MARIA DE JESUS MARTINEZ ESPINOZA

HI!!
THANKS FOR EVERYTHING. YOU HAVE MADE ME FEEL VERY WELL. I´VE BEEN IN YOUR WALK AND WALKED ON THE SURVIVORS PATH. BUT KNOW A GOT ANOTHER CYST WHICH IS BEEN STUDIED AND I HAD NOT GIVEN THE REULTS YET. I´M A LITTLLE WORRIED BECAUSE I KNOW GOD IS WITH ME. BUT SOMETIMES I FEEL A LITTLE DEPRESS. EVEN THOUGH I´M A PSYCOLOGYST AND I´M SEEN ONE. IT IS HARD TO ADAPT TO SOMETHING LIKE THIS. BUT ANYWAY MOST OF THE TIME A FEEL FINE MORE HAPPY THAN DEPRESS. I HELP MY SELF WITH GOOD THOUGHTS.
AND I INVITE EVERYONE WITH CANCER TO TRY HARD REALLY HARD TO HAVE A GOOD POSITIVE ACTITUDE. I WILL KEEP MYSELF WORKING VERY HARD FOR ME AND FOR OTHERS. I LOVE YOU ALL AND I´M WAITING FOR THE NEXT WALK.

MARIA DE JESUS MARTINEZ ESPINOZA

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