What It Takes to Be a Caregiver

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What about my needs and feelings?

Caring for someone going through cancer treatment can be very stressful and exhausting. It takes emotional, spiritual, and physical strength. It also takes time: in one study, over 50% of caregivers spent more than 8 hours a day caring for patients who were getting chemotherapy. There is often a financial burden to caregiving, too.

On top of your normal day-to-day tasks, such as meals, cleaning, and driving or arranging transportation, you will become an important part of the cancer treatment team. This busy schedule often does not leave time for caregivers to take care of their own needs. You also may feel the need to turn down job opportunities, work fewer hours, or even retire early in order to meet the demands of being a caregiver.

If you need some time away from work, speak with your boss or benefits office. If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program, look into what it offers. Some offer counseling services for money concerns, stress, and depression. If you can’t or don’t want to stop working, you might be able to take unpaid time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Whether you will be able to do this depends on your job and how you are related to the person you care for. (See our information called Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). You can read it on our Web site at www.cancer.org, or you can call us and ask for a copy.) You may also find that the people you work with treat you differently because of the time you must spend on caregiving tasks. This can affect you financially, as well as personally.

All these changes can lead to anxiety, hostility, anger, resentment, frustration, and depression. These are normal feelings that must be recognized and managed. Ask the health care team about resources that are available to you and use them. Informed and supported caregivers can better manage the harder parts of the role. They are better able to see the good parts of the role, too. They are also better able to see the value of their care.

The support of friends and family is key to both the person with cancer and the caregiver. Caregivers often feel tired, isolated, depressed, or anxious, and are less likely to reach out for help. In one study, California caregivers of patients with brain tumors thought it would be very helpful to be able to talk to someone who had been through a similar experience, but more than half had not been able to satisfy this need. They also mentioned the need for support to deal with their anxiety or stress, with more than half reporting that they did not have enough support. Physical problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, increased risk of infections, depression, and fatigue have been linked with caregiving. You may not have thought much about it, but while you are helping your loved one, you must also take care of yourself.

Overwhelming concern for a sick loved one may distract you from taking care of yourself. You may find there is conflict between the needs of the patient, your own needs, and the needs of your family. Many caregivers forget to eat, don’t get enough sleep or exercise, and ignore their own physical health concerns. Be sure to make and keep your own doctor appointments, get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthy foods, and keep your normal routine as much as you can. It is important not to feel guilty or selfish when you ask for help or take time for yourself. By taking care of yourself, you will be better able to take care of your loved one.

You can begin by setting limits on what you expect from yourself. Know that caring for someone with cancer can be an overwhelming job. It pays to ask for help before stress builds up. Here are some ways to take care of your own needs and feelings:

Plan things that you enjoy

There are 3 types of activities that you need for yourself:

  • Those that involve other people, such as having lunch with a friend.
  • Those that give you a sense of accomplishment, like exercising or finishing a project.
  • Those that make you feel good or relaxed, like watching a funny movie or taking a walk.

Make an effort to notice and talk about things you do as they happen during the day. Watch the news or take time to read the morning paper. Set aside time during the day, like during a meal, when you do not talk about your loved one’s illness.

Think about joining a support group for caregivers or using counseling services

Talk with a nurse or social worker or contact your local American Cancer Society for services in your area. Talking with other caregivers can help you feel less alone. If you can’t visit a group in person, the American Cancer Society also has the Cancer Survivors Network (CSN), an online community of people whose lives have been touched by cancer. Other organizations have internet-based groups and even online counseling, too. Through online or in person support groups, people can share their stories, offer practical advice, and support each other through shared experiences.

Most importantly, don’t try to do it all yourself

Caregiving alone for any period of time is not realistic. Reach out to others. Involve them in your life and in the things you must do for your loved one.

Last Medical Review: 02/14/2012
Last Revised: 03/23/2012