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How to Care for Yourself When You’re the Caregiver

Six Basic Steps

by Phyddy Tacchi

Wellness image

From the moment a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, the role of that person’s mother, father, spouse, or significant other changes. The relationship may become more difficult to maintain as needs and expectations vary during the cancer experience.

Caregiving requires commitment and dedication. It involves learning new tasks and developing skills to manage events and emotions that did not arise before the diagnosis. These demands, over time, may cause physical and emotional exhaustion. It is important to learn and practice basic ways to care for yourself. These six basic steps for caregiver self-care can help maintain or improve your physical, emotional, and spiritual sense of well-being:

1. Feed your body. The body is your caregiving machine. While helping a loved one during cancer treatment, it’s important to exercise, sleep, eat nourishing meals, and hydrate with water. Maintaining physical health is energizing, and it enables caregivers to stay strong and healthy.

2. Feed your mind. In part, energy and mood are direct products of your thoughts. During this stressful time, it’s vital to focus on today. Otherwise, caregivers may worry too much about tomorrow, which can create a sense of chaos, fear, and anxiety. Only you, not your circumstances or other people around you, can control your thoughts. You are what you think. Concentrating on today is an important stress-management tool.

When possible, caregivers should unplug from their loved one and plug into something that brings peace and pleasure.

Author of Article photo

Phyddy Tacchi

3. Feed your soul. A cancer diagnosis can affect the physical, emotional, and spiritual areas of a caregiver’s life, often differently than it affects the person with cancer. Searching for spiritual sustenance is an exercise many caregivers undergo to better understand this time in their lives. While seeking a deeper meaning, many rearrange their priorities. Pray, meditate, or reflect – feed your soul. Seek spiritual underpinnings and support.

4. Preserve your energy. When possible, caregivers should unplug from their loved one and plug into something that brings peace and pleasure. Sometimes, just 10 minutes can help rejuvenate and restore. Caregiving is a very hard job. Be good to yourself. This is not selfish; it’s self-care. Taking short breaks now will give you the energy and strength to stay for the long haul.

5. Evaluate your priorities. Becoming realistic can be a mind-altering experience. Consider letting go of the idea that you are Superman or Superwoman. Be mindful of your role as a caregiver. Take stock of the important tasks that must be done, not what should be done. Note things that require immediate attention, like organizing medications. List tasks that don’t matter in the big picture, and let those “slide off your back,” as one caregiver said.

6. Find your strengths. Some people have a hard time naming their strengths. Each caregiver has a unique personality and brings talents and gifts to this demanding role. What do you bring to the table that no one else can or is willing to do? Focus on what you are good at doing.

Helping a person during cancer diagnosis and therapy takes dedication, energy, patience, and determination. Caregiver self-care is an important aspect in balancing the multiple demands of this role. In addition to following these tips, consider joining a support group or speaking with a therapist. Sharing your experiences and receiving support from others who are facing similar challenges can help counteract a sense of isolation.

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Phyddy Tacchi is an advanced practice nurse in the department of Psychiatry at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Phyddy uses her experience as a therapist and former caregiver to help families cope emotionally with a cancer diagnosis.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2009.