By Alexis Puthussery
What is a caregiver? The American Cancer Society defines caregiver as “the person who most often helps the patient and is not paid to do so.” Like the patient, caregivers undergo stress and anxiety, although they may not always show it. It is thus important to pay attention to the mental health and well-being of caregivers as they truly are the unsung heroes.
One must recognize that a cancer diagnosis takes a toll on the person diagnosed and all of those around them. Parents, siblings, friends, and other loved ones quickly fall into the caregiver role and are thrown into the intensity of a cancer diagnosis. Caregivers, more than anyone, assume some of this burden because of the love they have for the patient. Taking care of oneself as a caregiver should always be a priority, especially when you have decided to give so much of yourself to someone else.
It is also important to emphasize that valuing a caregiver’s experience does not devalue or decenter the patient’s experience. This is an issue that may prevent many caregivers from seeking help when they need it. When one decides to become a caregiver (or sometimes by default become the caregiver) they willingly accept the mental and physical stress that comes with it.
Studies have shown that caregivers experience significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression. This can lead to symptoms such as:
Becoming easily fatigued
Other issues that may affect the caregiver’s daily life, and also the quality of care they can give to their loved one with cancer
Additionally, studies have found that caregivers may suffer PTSD after a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. Thus paying extra attention to oneself, as a caregiver, is important to maintaining mental and physical wellness. a strong support system is recommended for the caregiver as well, though it does not necessarily need to take on the traditional forms such as support groups or therapy.
5 Ideas to Maintain Mental Health & Well-Being as a Caregiver
Carve out time for yourself each day, even if it is just 15 minutes, find time for YOU.
While caregiving brings on new roles and responsibilities, do not cut yourself off from the activities you enjoy doing. If you are part of a sports league, church group, or a local society, keep participating as you will find that this brings a level of normality in a time when taking control of cancer seems impossible.
Get exercise! Exercise is a great stress reliever. Try and find 30 minutes a day for a walk with a friend, pick up a tennis racket, or throw some weights around. Keeping physically active will help you fight off fatigue and help you sleep better!
Develop a “code word.” It is natural that cancer is stress-reducing and even though you and the person diagnosed have the best intentions, it’s normal for emotions to run high. If you notice that communication is starting to break down, use your “code word” as a single that you need to take a time-out and break. This strategy will immediately defuse the situation and give you and your loved one an opportunity to reset.
You are going to be busy, there is no doubt about that. But preparedness is key. Find a good friend or colleague and ask them to call you once or twice a week to check in on you. Have that person set a reminder in their phone so they don’t forget! When they call, this is a time to talk about YOU, not updates on how your loved one is doing or when the next doctor’s appointment is. This is your opportunity to take your mind off of cancer and just chat!
When reflecting on their time as caregivers, many wished they had asked for help from their friends and families sooner rather than later “Help” can take on many forms and is unique to the individual. For example:
Ask a neighbor if they wouldn’t mind coming over to help with daily chores like doing the dishes, cleaning the house, or doing the laundry.
Ask friends to help with picking up or dropping off the kids from school and after-school activities.
It seems like everyone these days brings food over or orders food online. If people are offering to help with meals, be sure you inform them of your food preferences and any allergies in advance!
Taking care of oneself as the caregiver is not only important during the initial trauma of learning a loved one has been diagnosed, but also for the months and years to come. It is common for stress and anxiety to bubble up during times leading up to doctor visits, scans and medical appointments. Just as caregivers want to be there for the person with cancer, those close to the caregivers want to do the same for them. In order to face cancer, a strong community is necessary, and this extends to the community of caregivers as well.
If you are caring for a loved one with cancer, what type of resources would be most helpful for you? Let us know so we can fill the gap in this important area of programming and services at SurvivingBreastCancer.org. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas!