Caring for the Cancer Caregiver
In the world of cancer, caregivers are a silver lining. They help their loved ones with daily tasks they may currently be unable to do themselves. They provide hope and encouragement, and serve in roles ranging from therapists to chauffeurs.
But being a caregiver to a loved one who has cancer is a demanding role. Often times, caregivers have to uproot their lives just as much as patients. They may have to leave their jobs, temporarily give up their hobbies and maintain the emotional strength to watch the ones they love endure a grueling hardship.
In short, being a caregiver is draining. This makes it even more crucial that caregivers know how to take care of themselves, and that they have a support network to help them get through this difficult time, as well.
“Caregivers are priceless in cancer care, and the role is so demanding – both physically and mentally,” says Cynthia Ulreich, a nurse practitioner specializing in cancer care at Henry Ford Health System. “It’s a full time job – and if a caregiver isn’t able to balance that role with their own needs, they will burn out.”
Physically, you’re tending to your loved one’s needs – and that can vary depending on how the cancer is affecting the patient. You may find yourself assisting in hygiene practices, making food according to specific dietary recommendations and helping your loved one into the car.
Mentally, though, the job tends to be tougher.
“Unfortunately, caregivers have to watch their loved one go through it all, and they tend to feel helpless, because in that regard there isn’t anything they can do,” Ulreich says. “Despite everything, if the condition gets worse, caregivers blame themselves for not taking good enough care – and that’s a terrible feeling.”
To avoid feeling “caregiver burnout” or like you aren’t doing a good enough job, Ulreich advises doing the following:
- Do something for yourself. “You have to remember that you are an individual with your own basic needs,” she says. “You don’t need to be with the person 24/7 – during down time, take an hour or two to go do something to help you recharge.” Are you an exercise enthusiast? Go take an hour at the gym to sweat it out or calm your mind with yoga. In the middle of a good book? Find a quiet place to read for a while. Even just going for a walk on a nice day, talking with a friend on the phone, or playing in the backyard with the dog are all little moments that can help you endure other demands.
- Take advantage of friends and family. Friends and family want to help – so let them, Ulreich says. If your friends want to visit with your loved one for a few hours, use the time to your advantage. Go shopping or get ahead on other things in your life that are causing you stress. While you care about the person you’re watching over, space is good. And if you’re crabby, drained and tired, no one benefits.
- Find a support network. There are numerous networks out there where caregivers can talk with others who are in similar situations. It can be hard to talk about your frustrations with people who just don’t know what it’s like, so having people to express your feelings to, ask questions, talk about common problems with and get advice from is an excellent reminder that you’re doing the best you can.
“Caregivers need to be supported,” Ulreich says. “Naturally, all the attention goes to the person with cancer, but caregivers need the support of friends and family too.”
Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help you. Visit henryford.com/cancer to learn more.
Cynthia Ulreich is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner who works with cancer patients at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.