Many cancer patients have someone in their life who is a vital part of their care team, but is not a paid medical professional. This caregiver is often a spouse, child, other relative or a close friend. If you’re caregiver to a patient, cancer or otherwise, you’re playing an essential role in another’s healthcare treatment and daily life.
What is a caregiver?
Though you may consider yourself a good friend or a good spouse, and not a “caregiver,” there’s a good chance you are, in fact, a caregiver. According to cancer.org, caregivers serve as home health aides and companions. You likely work in concert with your loved one and their care team, performing tasks like:
- Help feed, dress, and bathe the patient
- Arrange appointments, tests and treatments
- Coordinate care among healthcare team
- Manage insurance issues
- Manage finances
- Provide transportation
- Track and administer prescriptions
- Manage side effects
- Report problems
- Keep family/friends informed
- Help determine when treatment is/isn’t working
- Keep house
- Shop for and prepare food
Enduring cancer or other medical treatments is emotionally and physical draining for both the patient and you. Modern cancer treatment is often administered via outpatient treatment, requiring more transportation and day-to-day oversight outside of the hospital or clinic setting. Caregivers are the ones stepping in to manage this outpatient care.
Caregiving is a tough job
Most of us readily understand that the cancer patient will be exhausted and drained. However, we do not always consider the toll of treatment on the caregiver. You are likely caring for a patient out of love or compassion, but that doesn’t make the work any less stressful.
Dealing with the patient’s pain and suffering, uncertainty, daily challenges and unpleasant lifestyle changes are just a few of the ways caregiving can cause stress. You may also be experiencing fear, confusion, doubt, anger, guilt and helplessness, and you need productive and helpful ways of dealing with those feelings.
Take a break
You are no help to your patient if you are run down, depressed and exhausted. You must give yourself “permission” to rest and recharge, both for the benefit of your patient and your own health. This will mean asking others to step in and take over caregiving duties to provide you with a break, ideally on a regular basis. A respite caregiver may be another friend or family member or someone with a local civic group, church group or other community organization.
What “regular” means will depend on your needs and the intensity of your caregiving duties. It could mean a few hours each week, every Sunday, or a full week of respite care. Filling in for you may require several different people. When we fall ill, there is often a chorus of people asking what they can do. Answer those calls and allow others to help get the rest you need to be an effective, healthy caregiver.
Do activities that keep you well
Experts recommend caregivers take part in a number of activities to help them destress and recharge. Think of caregiving as a full body sport — to do well, you must train well. Don’t think of these activities as optional, but as an essential part of your caregiver training.
Finding some time for regular exercise is very important to a caregiver’s overall physical and mental well-being. You may find that taking short exercise breaks throughout the day — like three 10-minute “mini-workouts” is easier than doing a longer workout. If possible, find ways to be active with your patient, you will both benefit from physical activity.
- A healthy diet
A healthy diet is essential for all of us to maintain good health, a sharp mind and adequate energy levels. Healthy means not skipping meals, particularly breakfast, and eating something with protein for long-term energy. Keep snacks handy as time can get away from you when you’re putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own. Snacks also help prevent poor impulse eating — when you’re just so hungry you grab whatever is nearby. AARP’s Chef Daniel offers up some crockpot recipes that caregivers can set and forget for themselves and their patient.
- Spiritual support
Spirituality is very personal. Some find comfort in attending church services, others in solitary prayer, journaling or meditation. You will need to choose your own path to find much needed renewal and strength. Rev. Rebecca Ebb-Speese offers these suggestions for caregiver spiritual support.
- Stay social
Recreational time, when you can enjoy friends socially and talk about something other than your patient and their care is important. It is a vital mental break from the constant concern and worry you likely experience. You may feel guilty about leaving your patient to “go have fun,” but consider what you need to be an effective caregiver in the long-term. AARP offers some guidelines for staying connected while caregiving.
- Seek whatever support works
If you are battling depression, you may need help from a trained mental health professional — get it. Again, if you want to be there for the long-term, you may need some tools to help you persevere. Support groups offer comfort, solidarity and the ability to vent that many caregivers need to keep doing what they’re doing day in and day out. Area caregiver support groups can be found here. Online forums like American Cancer Society Caregivers and Stupid Cancer Community can provider that support day or night, at a moment’s notice.
It’s natural that the cancer patient in our life is the person we’re focused on supporting. However, it is also important that as caregivers we look after ourselves. They’re counting on us.