As the caregiver of a loved one with cancer, you have a powerful role to play. Dennis Buttimer, M.Ed., CEAP, RYT, a facilitator at Cancer Wellness, works with cancer caregivers and shares his tips for taking care of yourself while caring for a loved one.
1. Understand the impact of the diagnosis
"At Cancer Wellness, we emphasize that the caregiver is every bit as affected by the diagnosis as the patient, with exception of receiving treatment," says Buttimer. "Caregivers vicariously go through treatment and are inordinately depended upon. This can put stress on a relationship. The caregiver has to bear a large amount of weight in the process of cancer diagnosis and treatment."
2. Get the facts
When your loved one is diagnosed with cancer, a lot of information will be given to you.
"It's important to be aware of the facts and get proper information," says Buttimer. "It's okay to ask questions of medical personnel."
3. Be present
The best thing you can do for a loved one with cancer is to listen to them and be present. It may be difficult not to jump in with your own thoughts, but it is important for them to express their feelings.
"When a cancer patient expresses his or her feelings, it helps release stress and tension. This creates an anti-cancer environment in the body," he says. "When it's hard to listen, remember you are giving them 'medicine.' Their body directly benefits from being able to share their feelings."
4. Avoid giving advice
Buttimer recommends caregivers avoid giving advice unless they are directly asked by the patient.
"If you try to control the patient, it can be counterproductive," he explains. "Patients tend to do better if they have feelings of self-efficacy, even in a situation where it seems like they have little control."
5. Be encouraging
"Most of us benefit when someone encourages us, whether we're scared or just took a step in the right direction," he says.
6. Feel your own emotions
"You are human. Give yourself permission to experience your own emotions," says Buttimer. "When you deal with your own feelings, you are able to be present for your loved one."
7. Share your own feelings and needs
As a caregiver, it is normal to feel frightened when a family member or friend has a cancer diagnosis.
"Some people suppress their feelings. They believe if they show their own fear, it's almost like telling the patient they don't believe they'll get better," he says. "But the thing is, the patient knows you are scared. It's okay to state your needs or share how you are feeling."
8. Take care of yourself
The more you care for yourself, the better caregiver you will be. Aim to:
Accept help and take time to get out of the house for a few hours to refresh yourself
Continue or take up a hobby you enjoy
Eat a balanced diet
Get enough sleep or catch naps whenever you can
Practice deep breathing
Read or watch positive, inspiring content
Take short meditation breaks
9. Make time for fun
Plan something fun to do with your loved one to get your mind off treatment. See a show, have dinner at a favorite restaurant or relax at home with a funny movie. Taking time for fun will remind you of your special bond and help you both de-stress.
10. Ask for help and know your limits
It's okay to ask for help. Everybody can run into limits and there is only so much time in a day to accomplish everything. Let your friends or family assist with childcare, errands or even caring for the patient. Attend a support group where you can learn from other caregivers. Seeking support can make the cancer treatment process much more manageable.
"None of us can do it all," says Buttimer.