Caring for a Loved One With Cancer: Six Tips to Help You Avoid Burnout and Stay Healthy

+ Pamela Friedman

My mother provided care for my father for 8 years. She enjoyed going to the spa to relax and rejuvenate.

As anyone touched by cancer knows, it’s not just the person receiving the diagnosis that struggles-those caring for him or her face their own challenges. In a Harvard School of Public Health poll of cancer survivors and their families, one-third said cancer caused someone in the household to have emotional or psychological problems.

Unfortunately, as you may know, most caregivers suffer in silence. According to the Hospice and Caregiving blog, only 20 percent of Americans who provide support to a loved one with cancer consider themselves a “cancer caregiver,” well below the national estimate of 60 percent. Make no mistake: If you are emotionally, physically, financially, or logistically caring for a cancer patient, you are a caregiver.

“There were times I would go into my office and just cry for no reason,” says caregiver John. “I became alarmed when I dreaded caring for her everyday.”

If you’re having trouble sleeping, eating more or less than usual, withdrawing from friends and family, feeling overly emotional, or fighting endless fatigue, don’t wait-get care for yourself. Start with the following six tips, and don’t stop until you feel stronger. After all, you can care for someone else only when you’re well enough, yourself.

1. Eat Well and Exercise: Neglect these items for too long and your body starts to break down. Pack fruits, nuts, and vegetables for snacks, drink water throughout the day, stay away from high-fat and high-sugar items (they zap your energy), and work in a 30-minute walk on most days. Meditation is also a great way to maintain a relaxed state of mind.

2. Spend Time with Friends and Family: Socializing with people who care about you is paramount to your mental and emotional health. It’s also a great way to talk about anything that may be bothering you. Make appointments for lunch, go walking together, or invite people over.

3. Express Your Feelings: One of the reasons caregivers suffer is because they’re silent about their own feelings. Repressed feelings wreak havoc on the body, so journal, talk with friends, visit a therapist, join a support group, or participate in an online support group like Gilda’s Club. Some studies have shown that caregivers who join a support group maintain a better state of mind.

4. Indulge Your Senses: When you’re around hospitals and doctors and medications on a regular basis, you can begin to feel separated from your body. To get back into your own skin, stimulate the immune system, and lower stress, go for a massage, or make an appointment for a facial, body wrap, or pedicure. If you can’t afford that, make your own spa at home with a hot bath, some naturally scented candles, perhaps a glass of wine, and some organic bath salts.

5. Find Out More: The less you know, the more your imagination imagines the worst. Ask doctors and nurses any questions you may have, and browse through the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society web sites to learn about your loved one’s condition.

6. Delegate and Get Help: Don’t think you have to do everything yourself. If you have friends, family members, or other loved ones willing to help, take them up on it and give yourself a break. If you can afford it, consider paying for part-time, in-home care. If you want to do the caregiving yourself, ask for help with running errands, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking meals. You may also have access to non-profit cleaning services who help cancer families like Pristine Maids or Cleaning for a Reason.

Do you have experience as a cancer caregiver? Please share your story.