This blog was originally published in November 2015 and was updated for relevancy.
Caregivers to someone with cancer spend an average of 8 hours per day providing care to their loved one. The demands of caregiving depend on several different things — stage of disease, types of symptoms experienced, treatment side effects, and more. A caregiver’s response to the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and journey itself can be just as important as how the patient responds. This makes the need for physical, social, and emotional support for caregivers essential.
Here are 10 tips to help caregivers find balance, support, and connection.
1. Find your support system
When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it’s an emotional time. Sometimes it can be difficult to talk with your loved one about your feelings, because you both have so much going on. Many find one of the best ways to cope with stress, uncertainty, and loneliness is to talk to others who share similar experiences. To find your own support system, explore Cancer Support Community’s partner network and find a location near you. We have over 170 locations worldwide, with programs that include support groups, yoga classes, and educational workshops.
You can also connect with others like you on our discussion board for caregivers. Share your unique experiences and offer insights, coping strategies, and inspiration.
“People talk about a caregiver, but you don’t really know what a caregiver is until you’re really in that role…I learned that a caregiver wears many hats: listener, observer, protector, planner, anticipator, the backup brain to the patient, the organizer, the strong one, the levelheaded one. The caregiver is the go-to person all the time…I quickly realized that I could not do it all and that I needed help.”
– Sheri, bereaved/former caregiver for a close friend
2. Gather information
There is truth to the phrase “Knowledge is power.” There’s no way to completely grasp the ups and downs of a cancer diagnosis and treatment — and you shouldn’t be expected to. Being armed with knowledge may help you accommodate your loved one’s needs and help you know what to expect.
The Cancer Support Community’s Helpline is here to help by offering free navigation for cancer patients or their loved ones. Our navigators can be reached toll-free at 888-793-9355 or online via our live chat service Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. ET, and Saturday-Sunday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ET.
3. Recognize a “new normal”
Patients and caregivers alike report feeling a loss of control after a cancer diagnosis. Many caregivers are asked for advice about medical decisions or managing family finances. Some caregivers also need to take on new day-to-day chores. It is likely that your tasks as a caregiver will create new routines—after all, you’re taking on a new role in your loved one’s life as well as your own.
Maintaining a balance between your loved one’s disease and the daily activities of your own life can be a challenge. It may be helpful to identify the parts of your life that you can still control, such as your own health and relationships. In doing this, you will be able to create a strategy for integrating new routines with old ones. It may also help to acknowledge that your home life, finances, and friendships may change for a period of time. Sometimes the laundry might not get done, or maybe takeout will replace home cooking. Try to manage each day’s priority as it comes. Take a deep breath and realize that the support you provide is priceless.
CAREGIVING TIP: Make a list of all of the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of everyone on the cancer care team and put it in a place where it’s readily available, should you need it. Make copies for anyone who is supporting you in your caregiver role.
4. Relax your mind, recharge your body
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the tasks of caregiving. Mini-breaks are an easy way to replenish your energy and lower your stress. Try simple activities like taking a walk around the block or closing your eyes for 10 minutes in a comfortable chair. You are working hard to provide and secure the best care for your loved one. Time spent recharging your mind and body will allow you to avoid depression, major illness, or burnout.
5. Take comfort in others
It’s common for many caregivers to feel a loss of personal time over the course of their loved one’s illness. Keep in mind that while you are taking on new and additional responsibilities, you are still allowed a life of your own. Many seasoned caregivers advise that you continue to be involved with your circle of friends and family.
A common feeling among caregivers and people with cancer is uncertainty. It’s hard to know what the future holds. While planning may be difficult, it can help. Try to schedule fun activities on days when your loved one is not feeling the side effects of treatment. You can also give yourselves something to look forward to by planning together how you will celebrate the end of treatment, or a portion of treatment.
Planning for a future in the long-term is also important. All of us, whether we have been diagnosed with cancer or not, should have in place necessary paperwork such as healthcare agent, power of attorney, and a will. You can ask your loved one if he or she needs, or wants, assistance. Having essential paperwork under control will allow you to have peace of mind.
7. Accept a helping hand
It’s okay to have “helpers.” In fact, you may find that learning to let go and to say “YES!” will ease your anxiety and lift your spirits. People often want to chip in, but aren’t quite sure what type of assistance you need. It’s helpful to keep a list of all caregiving tasks, both small and large. That way, when someone asks “Is there anything I can do?” you are able to offer them specific choices.
One simple way to organize a helping network is to create a MyLifeLine Friends & Family Site for your loved one. This free service from the Cancer Support Community allows you and your loved one to connect with family members, friends, and others in your support network. When you create a Friends & Family site, you gain access to a tool called the Helping Calendar. You can use this tool to coordinate help for a variety of events, from rides to doctor’s appointments to meals, childcare, and more.
8. Be mindful of your health
In order to be strong for your loved one, you need to take care of yourself. It’s easy to lose sight of your own health when you’re focused on your loved one. But if your own health is in jeopardy, who will take care of your loved one? Be sure to tend to any physical ailments of your own that arise. This includes scheduling regular checkups and screenings. And, just like your mother told you, eat well and get enough sleep.
Visit our virtual Kitchen, where you can explore recipes and healthy cooking videos. These recipes were created to support the nutritional needs of people impacted by cancer, but anyone can enjoy their health benefits.
9. Consider exploring stress-management techniques
Even if you’ve never practiced mind-body exercises before, you may find that meditation, yoga, listening to music, or simply breathing deeply will relieve your stress. If this interests you, seek out guidance or instruction to help you become your own “expert” on entering into a peaceful, rejuvenated state.
Mind-body (or stress-reduction) interventions use a variety of techniques to help you relax mentally and physically. Examples include meditation, guided imagery, and healing therapies that tap your creative outlets such as art, music, or dance. For help with relaxing and unwinding, visit our virtual Mind Body Studio for yoga lessons, gentle exercises, and meditation videos.
10. Do what you can, admit what you can’t
No one can do everything. It’s okay to acknowledge your limits. Come to terms with feeling overwhelmed (it will happen) and resolve to be firm when deciding what you can and cannot handle on your own, because no one should have to face cancer alone.