Caring for Yourself: Advice for Cancer Caregivers
Posted on July 12, 2013, 6:30 AM
By Paul H. Brenner, M.D., Ph.D.
There are few harder tasks than being a caregiver for a loved one going through the journey of cancer. Caregivers are patient advocates. They take notes during office visits, remind those they love to ask specific questions about symptoms they are experiencing, and prepare their own lists of questions for both physicians and nurses.
As a family member or friend taking on a new role, caregiving can take individuals completely out of themselves, their routine, and their life in unconditional service to another. Since patient care can be overwhelming, it is essential for the caregivers to take care of themselves, set goals, exercise, and most importantly, be honest about their feelings of helplessness, frustration, exhaustion and often anger.
There are many potential sources of negative feelings for caregivers. Seeing a loved one suffer a serious disease is painful for everyone, and can be exacerbated by worries about finances and the future. Additionally, the individuals who have cancer tend to feel disempowered by those who are dedicated to helping them. So, ironically what you perceive as a loving act can be interpreted by the patient as disempowerment. In my experience as a psychosocial oncologist, the anger that most caregivers feel is directed toward medicine for its failure to alleviate the pain and suffering of their loved ones. The caregivers often find themselves desperately glued to the Internet researching the latest treatments, procedures, and natural therapies, getting overwhelmed by it all.
It’s important to find healthy ways of taking care of yourself as a caregiver. Start by acknowledging, rather than denying, your feelings. You don’t have to pretend to be cheerful, even when you are feeling overwhelmed. It’s okay to cry. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. And don’t expect to be perfect – no one is.
There are simple things you can do to make your life easier. Much of the caregiver’s frustration can be resolved by staying away from the Internet, which is filled with anecdotal tails of cures and complications. Medicine is not a pure science and cannot, as a result, offer absolutes solutions for all problems. But today’s medicine is the best we have presently, and is closer to cancer cures then ever before.
Rather than trying to tackle everything, focus on tasks you can control. It could be scheduling doctor visits, helping with meals and errands, and so on. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Many of us feel that we need to “do it all.” Ask friends and family to help with chores, appointments, and so on. You may need assistance with the emotional challenges of caregiving, too. Try talking with your inner circle of support: loved ones, faith groups, or social circles. Or go beyond your inner circle to join a caregiver support group, or speak with a counselor, social worker, psychologist or other mental health professional. Each of these people may be able to help you talk about things that you don’t feel you can talk about with your loved ones.
So dear caregiver, be kind to yourself and treat yourself as lovingly as those you love. Find time and space for yourself. This allows the person who is ill to feel better and less guilty for consuming your life and for the suffering they feel they have caused you. To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer, change those things in life that you can, and have the wisdom to accept those things you cannot. Caregiving is a love beyond love that has no beginning or end, so cherish yourself with the identical love that your have for your beloved.
Paul Brenner M.D., PhD. was a gynecological oncologist who practiced obstetrics and gynecology, and also holds a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. His journey through the healing arts has been in search of those unseen processes that play into chronic illness. He presently is the Psychosocial Oncologist at the UCSD Health Systems San Diego Cancer Center. Also, he is a Research Fellow at The San Diego Cancer Research Institute. He is involved in studying the impact of Trans-Generational Emotional Patterns on Health and Illness. He is the author of “Seeing your Life Through New Eyes” and “Buddha in the Waiting Room.” He also has lectured throughout the world.
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