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When Someone You Love Is Being Treated for Cancer

  • Updated: 05/16/2014

Caring for Your Mind, Body, and Spirit

Make Time for Yourself
Myths About Taking Care of Yourself
Ways to Nurture Yourself
Caring for Your Body
Taking Care of Yourself
Do You Need Help with Depression or Anxiety?
Finding Meaning During Cancer

Make Time for Yourself

You may feel that your needs aren't important right now. Or maybe by the time you've taken care of everything else, there's no time left for yourself. Or you may feel guilty that you can enjoy things that your loved one can't right now.

Most caregivers say they have those same feelings. But caring for your own needs, hopes, and desires is important to give you the strength to carry on. (See the Caregiver's Bill of Rights.)

Taking time to recharge your mind, body, and spirit can help you be a better caregiver. You may want to think about:

  • Finding nice things you can do for yourself--even just a few minutes can help
  • Cutting back on personal activities, rather than cutting them out entirely
  • Finding things others can do or arrange for you, such as appointments or errands
  • Looking for easy ways to connect with friends
  • Finding larger chunks of "off-duty" time

Myths About Taking Care of Yourself*

Myth: "Taking care of myself means that I have to be away from my loved one."
Fact: You can do things to take care of yourself with or without your loved one in the room with you. What's important is that you do not neglect yourself.
Myth: "Taking care of myself takes a lot of time away from other things."
Fact: Some self-care only takes a few minutes, such as reading an upbeat passage from a book. Other self-care can be done in moments between longer tasks.
Myth: "I'd have to learn how to focus on myself. I don't know if I can start."
Fact: Whenever things make you feel happier, lighter, more relaxed, or more energized, these count as taking care of yourself. Think of things that you already know work for you.

* The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. Caring for Yourself While Caring for Others: Removing the Barriers to Self-Care. Adapted with permission.

Ways to Nurture Yourself

Take Stock of Your Own Feelings

"I just need some quiet time. If my husband's taking a nap, I will read a book or sit on the porch because sometimes it's so intense. We have days where we go straight from chemo to radiation. It can be very tiring." - Adele

Giving yourself an outlet for your own thoughts and feelings is important. Think about what would help lift your spirits. Would talking with others help ease your load? Or would you rather have quiet time by yourself? Maybe you need both, depending on what's going on in your life. It's helpful for you and others to know what you need.

Find Comfort

Your mind needs a break from the demands of caregiving. Think about what gives you comfort or helps you relax. Caregivers say that even a few minutes a day without interruptions helps them to cope and focus.

Take 15-30 minutes each day to do something for yourself, no matter how small it is. (See Small Things I Can Do for Me.") For example, caregivers often find that they feel less tired and stressed after light exercise. Try to make time for taking a walk, going for a run, or doing gentle stretches.

You may find that it's hard to relax even when you have time for it. Some caregivers find it helpful to do exercises designed to help you relax, such as stretching or yoga. Other relaxing activities include taking deep breaths or just sitting still.

Small Things I Can Do for Me

Each day, take some time to do something for yourself, no matter how small it is. This might include:

  • Napping
  • Exercising or yoga
  • Keeping up with a hobby
  • Taking a drive
  • Seeing a movie
  • Working in the yard
  • Going shopping
  • Catching up on phone calls, letters or email

You may find that it's hard to relax even when you have time for it. Some caregivers find it helpful to do exercises such as deep breathing or meditating.

Join a Support Group

"What I need at least once or twice a week is to talk to one person or a group of people that are in the same shoes as I am." - Vince

Support groups can meet in person, by phone, or over the Internet. They may help you gain new insights into what is happening, get ideas about how to cope, and help you know that you're not alone. In a support group, people may talk about their feelings, trade advice, and try to help others who are dealing with the same kinds of issues. Some people like to go and just listen. And others prefer not to join support groups at all. Some people aren't comfortable with this kind of sharing.

If you can't find a group in your area, try a support group on the Internet. Some caregivers say websites with support groups have helped them a lot.

Talk to a Counselor

You may be feeling overwhelmed and feel like talking to someone outside your inner circle of support. Some caregivers find it helpful to talk to a counselor, social worker, psychologist or other mental health professional. Others also find it helpful to turn to a leader in their faith or spiritual community. All may be able to help you talk about things that you don't feel you can talk about with your loved one or others around you. You also might find ways of expressing your feelings and learn ways of coping that you hadn't thought of before.

Connect with Your Loved One

Cancer may bring you and your loved one together more than ever before. Often people become closer as they face challenges together. If you can, take time to share special moments with one another. Try to gain strength from all you are going through together, and what you have dealt with so far. This may help you move toward the future with a positive outlook and feelings of hope.

Connect with Others

"It's okay for a neighbor to ask how I'm doing when they want the answer to be, 'I'm fine.' But when I'm really not fine, all I need is to talk to someone who can understand, or just hear me out. You don't have to have an answer, just listen to me." - Kathy

Studies show that connecting with other people is very important to most caregivers. It's especially helpful when you feel overwhelmed or want to say things that you can't say to your loved one. Try to find someone you can really open up to about your feelings or fears. You may find it helpful to talk with someone outside the situation. Also, it may help to have an informal network of people to contact, either by phone or in person. But if you're concerned about a caregiving issue, you may want to talk with your loved one's doctor. Knowledge often helps reduce fears.

Look for the Positive

It can be hard finding positive moments when you're busy caregiving. It can be also hard to adjust to your role as a caregiver. Caregivers say that looking for the good things in life helps them feel better. Once a day, think about something that you found rewarding about caregiving, such as gratitude you've received, or extra support from a health care provider. You might also take a moment to feel good about anything else from the day that is positive--a nice sunset, a hug, or something funny that you heard or read.

Let Yourself Laugh

It's okay to laugh, even when your loved one is in treatment. In fact, it's healthy. Laughter releases tension and makes you feel better. You can read humor columns, watch comedy shows, or talk with upbeat friends. Or just remember funny things that have happened to you in the past. Keeping your sense of humor in trying times is a good coping skill.

Write in a Journal

Research shows that writing or journaling can help relieve negative thoughts and feelings. And it may actually help improve your own health. You can write about any topic. You might write about your most stressful experiences. Or you may want to express your deepest thoughts and feelings. You can also write about things that make you feel good, such as a pretty day or a kind coworker or friend.

Another technique people use is to write down whatever comes to mind. It doesn't have to make sense of have correct grammar. It just helps to get all the "jumble" out of your mind and onto the paper.

Be Thankful

You may feel thankful that you can be there for your loved one. You may be glad for a chance to do something positive and give to another person in a way you never knew you could. Some caregivers feel that they've been given the chance to build or strengthen a relationship. This doesn't mean that caregiving is easy or stress-free. But finding meaning in caregiving can make it easier to manage.

Do Your Usual Activities

If you can, try to keep doing some of your regular activities. Studies show that not doing those activities increases the stress you feel. Keep it simple and stick with things you do well. Be willing to change your routines. You may have to do things at a different  time of day or for less time than you do normally.

Learn More About Cancer

Sometimes understanding your loved one's medical situation can make you feel more confident and in control. For example, you may want to know more about his stage of cancer. It may help you to know what to expect during treatment, such as the tests and procedures that will be done, as well as the side effects that will result. (See the Resources section.)

Caring for Your Body

"When I get home from class, my mom and I take turns running while one of us stays with my dad. My run is my time for me, and the only way I can keep it together." - Meredith

You may find yourself so busy and concerned about your loved one that you don't pay attention to your own physical health. But it's very important that you take care of your health, too. Taking care of yourself will give you strength to help others.

New stresses and daily demands often add to any health problems caregivers already have. And if you are sick or have an injury that requires you to be careful, it's even more important that you take care of yourself. Here are some changes caregivers often have:

  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Weaker immune system (poor ability to fight off illness)
  • Sleep problems
  • Slower healing of wounds
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety, depression, or other mood changes

Taking Care of Yourself

These ideas for taking care of yourself may sound easy. But they're a challenge for most caregivers. You'll need to pay attention to how you're feeling, in both body and mind. Even though you may be putting someone else's needs first, it's important to:

  • Keep up with your own checkups, screenings, and other medical needs.
  • Try to remember to take your medicines as prescribed. Ask your doctor to give you a larger prescription to save trips to the pharmacy. Find out if your grocery store or pharmacy delivers.
  • Try to eat healthy meals. Eating well will help you keep up your strength. If your loved one is in the hospital or has long doctor's appointments, bring easy-to-prepare food from home. For example, sandwiches, salads, or packaged foods and canned meats fit easily into a lunch container.
  • Get enough rest. Listening to soft music or doing breathing exercises may help you fall asleep. Short naps can energize you if you aren't getting enough sleep. Be sure to talk with your doctor if lack of sleep becomes an ongoing problem.
  • Exercise. Walking, swimming, running, or bike riding are only a few ways to get your body moving. Any kind of exercise (including working in the garden, cleaning, mowing, or going up stairs) can help you keep your body healthy. Finding at least 15-30 minutes a day to exercise may make you feel better and help manage your stress.
  • Make time for yourself to relax. You may choose to stretch, read, watch television, or talk on the phone. Whatever helps you unwind, you should take the time to do it. It's important to tend to your own needs and reduce your own stress levels.

Do You Need Help with Depression or Anxiety?

As mentioned earlier, many of the things listed below are normal. This is especially true when you're dealing with a lot of stress. But if you have any of these signs for more than two weeks, let your health care provider know. He or she may have ideas for treatment.

Changes in Your Feelings

  • Feelings of being worried, anxious, "blue," or depressed that don't go away
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Feeling overwhelmed, out of control, or shaky
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Feeling grouchy and moody
  • Crying a lot
  • Thoughts of hurting or killing yourself
  • Focusing on worries or problems
  • Not being able to get a thought out of your mind
  • Not being able to enjoy things anymore (such as food, being with friends, sex)
  • Avoiding situations or things that you know are really harmless
  • Having trouble concentrating or feeling scatterbrained
  • Feeling that you are "losing it"

Body Changes

  • Weight loss or weight gain without meaning to
  • Trouble sleeping or needing more sleep
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating a lot
  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea (loose, watery stools)
  • Slowing down physically
  • Fatigue that won't go away
  • Headaches or other aches and pains

Finding Meaning During Cancer

Many caregivers find that cancer causes them to look at life in new ways. They may reflect on spirituality, the purpose of life, and what they value most. It's normal to view the cancer experience both negatively and positively at the same time. You and your loved one may be struggling to understand why cancer has entered your lives. You may wonder why you have to endure such a trial in your life.

The way cancer affects one's faith or religion is different for everyone. Some turn away from their religion, while others turn toward it. It's common to question one's faith after cancer. But for others, seeking answers and searching for personal meaning helps them cope.

Many caregivers have found that their faith, religion, or sense of spirituality is a source of strength as they face life during cancer treatment. Many say that through their faith, they have been able to find meaning in their lives and make sense of the cancer experience. Faith or religion can also be a way for caregivers and their loved ones to connect to others in their community. These may be people who share similar experiences or outlooks, or who can provide support. Studies have also shown that for some, faith can be an important part of both coping with and recovering from cancer.

Here are ways you may find comfort and meaning through your faith or spirituality:

  • Reading materials that are uplifting and can help you connect to a higher power
  • Praying or meditating to help you feel less fearful or anxious
  • Talking about your concerns or fears with a leader of your faith or spiritual community
  • Going to religious or spiritual gatherings to meet new people
  • Talking to others who have had similar experiences
  • Finding spiritual or faith-based resources for people dealing with chronic illnesses like cancer