Caring for yourself while caregiving

Group of friends talking

Breast cancer treatment can take many months, and it sometimes take years. The other parts of your life will go on, but caring for your loved one means you may have less time or energy for other things. To be able to give your loved one the attention and support you really want to, it is important to care for yourself. Here, we’ll share some ways you can take care of your physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Talk to someone

“It’s essential that caregivers get support,” says Ms. Grosklags. “Find someone outside of the caregiving relationship who you can talk to. This might be someone in your faith community, a best friend, or therapist.” Make this easy on yourself, adds Ms. Grosklags, and consider what resources you already have in your life. Maybe you have a walking group or another friend group you talk with regularly. “It only takes one person who is trusted,” she says. Local caregiving support groups through communities and nonprofits can also fill this role. “You likely already have resources in your life. Start there.”

Accept help

Caregiving can involve many roles and responsibilities that can be challenging for one person to fulfill, particularly if you are also employed or caring for other people, such as children. Just like you give your loved one the chance to tell you about things they need help with, you can accept help from others. Additional family members may be able to take on chores or give you space to do things that are just for you. Be prepared for when someone asks, “How can I help?” by having a specific list. Maybe you need help picking up prescriptions, shopping, or caring for pets, for example.

Be realistic

It can help to remember that even if it sounds like a cliché, there really is only so much you can accomplish in a single day. Have realistic expectations of yourself. Set practical, achievable goals, but also be kind to yourself if things slip through the cracks or don’t work out as you had hoped. As you care for a loved one, you are giving greatly of yourself, and showing love and respect. Take a pause to remember all the ways you are helping, and the difference you’re making every day. This can make it a little easier to move on from disappointments without shame or guilt.

Accept and allow your emotions

Caregiving brings up a lot of emotions, says Ms. Grosklags. “There can be moments of joy, followed by guilt. Emotions become complex when we judge them or shame ourselves for having them. Embrace the emotions, hold them, and don’t try to figure them out. You get to have these emotions. A scary experience is happening to someone you care for deeply. You would expect there to be a variety of reactions.” Talk to someone so that your emotions have an outlet. If you are concerned that you are experiencing depression or anxiety, let your doctor know. Some emotions may have a medical basis that needs to be addressed.

Keep up with your health

Maintaining your physical health is a priority, for you own sake and for your loved one, too. Prioritize healthy meals, exercise, quality sleep, and some down time. Don’t hesitate to ask for and accept support to help you make those things happen. Continue to see your own healthcare professional for regular check-ups and preventive care.

Manage stress

Caregiver stress is real, on both emotional and physical levels. All of the above strategies can help you to lower stress. This includes accepting help, prioritizing your own wellness, and allowing room for your emotions without judging them. Here are some other ways to help lower caregiver stress:

  • Look for help in your community. Meal delivery options, transportation, and legal or financial counseling may be available. Respite care is also a possibility. A certified respite care provider is someone who can stay with your loved one while you take a break. Ask your doctor or a social worker for lists of resources. Or better yet, ask someone else to do this research for you.
     
  • Learn more about caregiving. Practical advice from doctors may be useful. Some hospitals offer classes that can teach you how to care for someone with cancer. To find classes, ask your loved one’s medical team.
     
  • Make to-do lists and set a daily routine.
     
  • Stay in touch with family and friends, and do things you enjoy with your loved ones.
     
  • Watch for signs of stress overload*. These can include: 
    • Feelings of helplessness
    • Anxiety
    • Irritability
    • Strong or frequent feelings of anger
    • Sleeping difficulties
    • Health issues such as heartburn or catching repeated colds
    • Avoiding social situations
    • Drug or alcohol abuse   

If you are experiencing any of these, seek help from healthcare professionals, a therapist or counselor, family members, or friends. Ask your loved one’s care team about caregiver support groups — these are widely available in hospital systems. We’ve also included some online support group resources below. Caregiver stress is extremely common, and you are not alone. Reach out for support if you are feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.