Family Talk: Remember to care for yourself when a loved one has cancer
Last week in this column we talked about supporting a loved one with cancer. I wrote that when a family member receives the dire diagnosis of cancer, we usually respond with, “What can I do to help?” I recommended an article listing 15 suggestions about things we can do. Don't let the question “What can I do?” simply hang hollow in the ears of the cancer patient. Do something!
But when a loved one has cancer, it is not only the patient who needs care.
Caregivers and support givers also need to recognize their need for care and not feel guilty about it. What can I do to support myself as I support my family member with cancer?
When my wife and I went through her cancer journey together, I found myself wanting to be the strong male whose own needs were flung aside in a spirit of selflessness. That's what I wanted to be. But what I found myself to be was something else. I felt overwhelmed by all the information we were trying to absorb. I felt vulnerable and scared at the prospect of losing my wife even though the cancer had been caught early. I felt fatigued and occasionally despondent despite a host of family and friends who supported us. My faith and much prayer was an essential foundation for me, but those other emotions didn't just disappear when I prayed.
What does a cancer caregiver do when they need self-care?
I found an article that answers that question. "Tips for Caregivers for Those with Cancer" by Dr. Lynne Eldridge gives sage advice, listing things family members can do for themselves as they care for their loved one. Among her suggestions:
Maintain a sense of humor. Watch a funny movie. Recall amusing memories. Cancer is a serious, scary disease, but sometimes laughter is the best medicine.
Take care of yourself. Getting adequate rest, exercise, and good nutrition are more important than ever when you are caring for another.
Make use of available resources. Seek out resources in your community that are available for cancer patients and their caregivers.
Maintain your boundaries. Give as you can, but know your limits. Giving beyond your ability and sacrificing your own needs may leave you feeling resentful and bitter.
Keep a journal. Writing a journal can be a great way to express those thoughts and feelings you can't share openly.
Educate yourself. Learning as much as you can about your loved one's illness can help you understand more about what they are going through.
Pamper yourself. Read an uplifting or inspirational book. Take time to maintain your friendships. Caring for another does not mean giving up your own needs and desires.
It may sound selfish and counterintuitive to take care of yourself when you feel you should be spending all your time caring for your loved one. But on an airplane we are always advised to put our own oxygen mask on first and then assist others. You must be able to breathe to help your loved one. Remember to breathe.
Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.