Taking Care of You

Tips and Support for the Cancer Caregiver

by Joanne Corbo Cruz, MSW, LMSW, ACT

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When my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in 1999, my life and my family’s lives changed. Each day after that was different, not taken for granted and very precious. It truly brought my family closer.

We decided in a family meeting that we needed to pull together for my mom. As my mom fought and won and continued to manage her cancer, we fought and won right beside her. She was cancer-free for several years. However, just last year, we had to put on our boxing gloves again for another fight. And along every step of the way, we supported her in going to treatment and appointments. We prayed with her; we laughed with her and with each other.

But with all the focus on taking care of my mom and the rest of my family, it was easy for me to forget about myself and my needs. It didn’t dawn on me to stop and ask myself how I was doing. My sister would occasionally ask me how I was, and I always gave a guarded response of “I’m well. How are you?” It was easy to deflect personal questions so that I didn’t have to process painful thoughts or emotions or acknowledge whatever I was struggling with that day.

After prolonged periods of not prioritizing my needs, I eventually came down with colds more frequently and became increasingly irritable and tired. I quickly learned that if I wasn’t physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy, I could not be an effective caregiver for my mom. If I didn’t allow myself to ask for help, seek support, and rely on my friends and other family members, I would be emotionally fatigued, not to mention physically ill and spiritually drained.

As each day passes, my mom’s cancer has taken a significant toll on her spirits and her body. This means more physical care, companionship, prayer, and strength are required from me and my family. This also means more coordinating of care, advocating for her needs, being more assertive on her behalf and more direct with requests, and becoming more resourceful to help conserve finances and energy.

I quickly learned that if I wasn’t physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy, I could not be an effective caregiver for my mom.

Author of Article photo

Joanne Cruz

Caring for my mom has called for a special strength and a previously untapped emotional fortitude from within. I believe this strength and fortitude resides in each and every family caregiver. I believe it’s what helps keep me and my family, along with the millions of other caregivers across the nation, going.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, having to take on the role of cancer caregiver, here is some advice to help you care for yourself so that you can in turn give care and support to your loved one with cancer:

  • Caregiving is a job, and respite is your earned right. Reward yourself with respite breaks often.
  • Watch out for signs that you are experiencing depression, and don’t delay in getting professional help when you need it. Depression is a treatable medical condition.
  • When people offer to help, accept the offer and suggest specific things they can do.
  • Educate yourself about your loved one’s condition and about how to communicate effectively with doctors. Ask for information from the doctor or do research online.
  • There’s a difference between caring and doing. Be open to technologies and ideas that promote your loved one’s independence, such as having a motorized lift at home to help with transferring your loved one.
  • Trust your instincts. Most of the time, they’ll lead you in the right direction. If you’re not sure, ask for help.
  • Caregivers often do a lot of lifting, pushing, and pulling. Be good to your back. I’m always reminded to lift with my legs, not my back. Practicing yoga, stretching, and doing conditioning exercises is beneficial.
  • Grieve your losses, and then allow yourself to dream new dreams.
  • Seek support from other caregivers. There is great strength in knowing you’re not alone. Going to support groups and talking with other caregivers gives comfort at times when we feel alone in our caregiving.
  • Stand up for your rights as a caregiver. Support movements on a policy level to help family caregivers get more support.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Joanne Corbo Cruz is a Licensed Social Worker who works for Health Care Partners, a skilled home care service in Michigan. She is an active member of the National Family Caregivers Association and volunteer member of its grassroots organization Caregiver Community Action Network.

For more resources and support for family caregivers, visit the National Family Caregivers Association website, thefamilycaregiver.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2010.