Caring for Yourself

lovely girl with a mug of coffeeA vital but easily forgotten task for a head and neck cancer caregiver is taking care of yourself. As a caregiver, your physical, emotional and mental well-being are critical to the person who has cancer and for others in your life who depend on you. In any given year, 21 percent of the adult population—more than 44 million Americans—provides informal (unpaid) care to another adult. In fact, informal caregivers provide 80 percent of all long-term care. These numbers are expected to increase as the nation’s largest age group, the Baby Boomer generation, ages and requires more health care. Since caregiving is known to affect the mental and physical health of caregivers, their health and well-being is a significant and growing public health concern.

Understanding caregiver stress

Caregiving almost always causes an increase in stress for the caregiver. This stress is both emotional and physical. It may cause you to become frustrated or angry with your loved one, feel guilty that you aren’t providing better care or feel lonely and isolated. Caregiving can also be physically exhausting because you are essentially “on call” 24/7. Women caregivers are more likely to feel severe caregiver stress than men. About 75 percent of women report feeling very strained by caregiving combined with their other roles and responsibilities.

Caregiver stress can absolutely affect your health. You are statistically more likely to suffer symptoms of depression or anxiety You are also more likely to develop chronic health issues yourself, such as heart disease or diabetes. Your immunity may be compromised, making you more susceptible to viruses and infections, and wounds may heal more slowly. Older caregivers (in their late 60s and above) are 63 percent more likely to develop life-threatening illnesses than non-caregiving peers of the same age. So when you are told that you must make your own health and well-being a priority, it is not just a suggestion. The strain on your health is real, and you must take care of yourself if you want to help your loved one.

Taking care of yourself

To ensure that you are taking care of yourself, make a self-care checklist and stick to it as well as you can. You might keep it on your phone or other device and set reminders to keep yourself accountable, or ask another family member or friend to help you remember. For example, you need to eat regularly and try to eat healthy meals. Do what you need to in order to get enough sleep; a sleep-deprived person does not think clearly and can make dangerous mistakes in caregiving. Lack of sleep also adds to physical stress and lowers immunity. You also need to keep your appointments with your doctor(s) and therapist or counselor, and you must fill your prescriptions and take medications as prescribed.

Signs that caregiving is getting to be too much for you to handle and that you need to get help include feeling exhausted and overwhelmed all the time, having little control over your emotions or reactions, gaining or losing a lot of weight, experiencing sleep problems, feeling constantly worried or sad or abusing drugs or alcohol. If you ever experience urges to harm yourself or the person you are caring for, talk to a mental health professional right away.

Reducing caregiver stress

People who take a problem-solving approach to caregiving have lower stress. Being informed, planning ahead, delegating responsibilities and seeking help when necessary are all active problem-solving strategies that will help you feel more in control. Other effective stress-reduction strategies include establishing a daily routine, making lists, setting realistic goals, breaking large tasks into smaller pieces, setting aside time for relaxation and keeping in touch with family and friends. Finally, you might benefit from attending a caregivers’ support group or seeing a social worker who specializes in working with cancer patients and their caregivers.

Coping strategies

As a caregiver, in addition to providing extremely valuable and compassionate care to your loved one, you may also have to take on everything your partner used to do, keep the family informed and together, worry about getting the kids to school and deal with your own job and your financial situation. There will be periods of stress, frustration and depression. Ways to cope with this can include:

  • Talking to Other Caregivers
    Talking with other caregivers can help you address common emotions. Your patient’s oncology social worker may be able to connect you to other caregivers or local support groups.
  • Identifying Stress and Seeking Additional Help Common signs of depression and anxiety can include consistent exhaustion or fatigue, frequent sickness, difficulty sleeping, impatience and irritability. If you’re regularly experiencing these symptoms, you may want to seek help with caregiving duties from other family members or professional caregivers. If your psychological distress becomes an issue, consider seeing a counselor or therapist to help you cope. Many caregivers also find solace in faith.
  • Making Time for Yourself
    While the person you’re caring for has many needs requiring your attention, it’s still important to make some time for yourself. Doing something you enjoy or spending time with friends can give you a much-needed break, which helps you remain an effective caregiver. If your loved one should not be left alone, ask relatives, friends or members of your house of worship to take over your caregiving duties from time to time so that you can make time for yourself. If no one is available to provide unpaid care, consider hiring a paid caregiver or respite care service to give you regular time away from caregiving.
  • Taking Advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
    If you’re employed, take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. This requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees needing time off to care for a seriously ill family member. Employers are required to continue benefits during the leave period, and some may allow a flexible or reduced work schedule. Speak to your employer about provisions your company offers.
  • Seeking Financial Assistance
    Cancer treatment, recovery and follow-up are very costly and can drain your family’s savings very quickly. If the cancer patient can’t work and you also find that you have to quit or cut back your hours, finances may rapidly become a primary source of stress for you and your entire family. If there are other family members who can and should contribute a fair share to the sick person’s care (such as other adult children of an aging parent with cancer), be assertive and insist that they do their part. You should also ask a social worker to help you find and apply for government programs, nonprofit organizations and other resources that can assist you financially or provide free or low-cost services to you and your loved one.

The rewards of caregiving

Caregiving does have benefits and rewards. You have the opportunity to give back to someone you love. You will probably begin to appreciate good health and life more. You may find that your relationship with your loved one becomes closer and stronger. And you can feel good about what you’re doing and proud of being strong for your loved one with cancer and the rest of your family. Focusing on the rewards of caregiving can help lessen your stress. Anything that helps relieve your stress can improve your and your loved one’s relationship and quality of life.

When you’re a caregiver, I don’t think you realize how much it takes out of you while you’re going through it because you don’t have the time.Ronnie W. (wife of cancer survivor)