Caregivers—whether family members or friends—provide different forms of support to people with cancer. Full of richness, the experience of caregiving reflects the heart and soul. Caregiving may include help with day-to-day activities, identifying resources, coordinating care and services, companionship during health care appointments, emotional and spiritual support, and more. Time, conversation, listening, kindness, and love are among the most valued forms of care.
Caregiving with support to someone with cancer can also be challenging physically, emotionally, and financially. Stress associated with cancer can feel utterly overwhelming. Many caregivers put their own feelings and needs aside as they focus on the person with cancer. This may work for a short time. However, giving constant care to another person can be hard to maintain for a long time. If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be able to care for another. Caregivers must practice self-care for nourishment and replenishment.
Prioritize your time and energy
Focus on activities that are worth your time and energy. Depending upon the situation, if you need emergencies, and/or absolute necessities, try to get more support for help to the person in your life with cancer and hopefully for yourself too.
You cannot truly give caregiving to your loved one or anyone else without caring for yourself. Supporting yourself through self-care is essential. Nurture yourself. Tending to your own needs cultivates strong roots and a more powerful core through which you can give more fully and lovingly.
Balanced, deep, rhythmic inhales and exhales help regulate all of the functions in your body. Focusing on breathing moves people into a more relaxed state. When people get into the habit of it, the breath becomes an anchor. Deep breathing is especially helpful during stress. Remember to breathe.
Feel and express your emotions
Pretending to feel positive such as upbeat and cheerful is a disservice to yourself and those around you. Give yourself space to cope. Be gentle with yourself. Listen with your heart. Feel and express your emotions.
Cultivate awareness for what and how you are feeling as much as possible. Your self-awareness will allow you to be more present and supportive to yourself as well as extend more presence and support to your loved one. Learning and understanding how you feel comes with experience over time.
Connect with loving people
You do not need to go through your experience alone. Be open to accept and receive support. Identify people that can hold space for your feelings and experience. Ask for help.
Create a healing environment
Cultivate and dwell in a healing environment for yourself and your loved one. Qualities of a healing environment include kindness, presence, touch, sound, smell, and sight, among others.
Meditation is a combination of relaxation and self-awareness bringing people calm and relief during times of stress. Devote time to sit quietly and be with yourself. Breathe deeply and relax your body. Feel roots from the ground for support.
Exercise and movement
With caregiving you may be struggling to understand why cancer has entered your life. Cancer may move caregivers to look at life in a new way. They may reflect on religion and spirituality, the purpose of life, and what they value most. Faith can be a source of strength and clarity. Educate yourself about the navigating a world turned upside down and search for meaning through information regarding cancer as an existential crisis as well as meaning and purpose.
Explore your perceptions about cancer
Understanding how you think and feel about cancer is central to how you relate to people with the disease. Explore your perception through an exercise used by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. Take a blank piece of paper. Put the word Cancer in the middle of the page. Around it draw and/or write all of the associations that you have to cancer. This should be done quickly. The Zen motto “first thought, best thought” is appropriate. Use any colors you like. The exercise should take no more than 7 to 10 minutes. This is just the beginning. Develop more awareness for and track other thoughts and images that come to you over time about how you perceive cancer.
Further define your beliefs
Habits of mind are powerful constructs. Our beliefs are the blueprint of who we are. Beliefs unconsciously drive our decisions, attitudes, feelings, coping patterns, life choices, and more. Evaluating your belief system is a tool toward healthier living, better clarity, and reduced stress. Defining beliefs helps caregivers better understand themselves, how they relate to other people, and life.
An important act of self-love and support to others is forgiveness. Release thoughts that you have about the past or future. Ground yourself in the present moment and open yourself to new possibilities.
Utilize other integrative modalities
Explore other integrative modalities to support your self-care, ways to address your individual needs, and give care.
Dealing with Specific Feelings and Reactions
Caregivers often experience a range of feelings related to supporting a loved one with cancer. James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist, Founder, and Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, describes that most caregivers have generous loving feelings. Only sometimes does their anxiety and fear prompt them to have other reactions, including projecting their feelings onto loved one with cancer or stepping back. Projection includes displacing inner feelings and reactions onto another person. Stepping back involves withdrawal and moving away from another person for varied reasons.
Reactions contain very strong feelings that evolve through the cancer experience. Anger, fear, grief, guilt, anxiety and depression, hope and hopelessness, and loneliness may occur in some caregivers. Addressing these painful feelings is important. The first step in coping with feelings is to recognize them. Acknowledge and honor what you are feeling to move through your emotions and strengthen yourself.
Caregivers may be angry with themselves, their family members, or sometimes even the person with the disease. Sometimes anger is associated with fear, panic, worry, resentment, and other emotions. Use anger to help motivate you into self-exploration, action, and constructive changes in your life.
Mourning the loss of your loved one’s health and the life you had with one another before cancer may occur. Give yourself permission to grieve these losses.
Guilt may include feeling like you are not helping enough, your work and any distance from your loved one is getting in the way, you are healthy, and dealing with complicated feelings. Identify and evaluate guilt and other associated emotions.
Anxiety and depression
Caregivers may feel anxiety and depression about how their loved one is coping, the illness’ impact on the family and community, as well as finances. These reactions contain overwhelm and worry.
Hope or hopelessness
Hope and hopelessness may be felt to varying degrees throughout your loved one’s cancer experience. Hope is inspiration toward what may change over time such as cure, comfort, peace, acceptance, and joy. Hopelessness is related to anxiety, depression, and feeling out of control.
Primary caregivers can feel alone in their role and even with people around them. Caregivers that feel isolated may perceive that others cannot understand what they are going through. Loneliness may also be related to less time for socializing and previous routines.
All of these feelings can be overwhelming and stressful. Caregivers may feel a loss of control. Stress is a response to any demand for change and how people respond to life. Learn about consequences and coping strategies of stress.
For More Information
- National Cancer Institute’s When Someone You Love Is Being Treated for Cancer
- American Cancer Society Caregivers
- People Living with Cancer Caregiving
- Cancer Care Caregiver Support Services
Psychological and psychosocial support can help improve quality of life and cancer survival.