Preventing Burnout as a Cancer Caregiver

Preventing Burnout as a Cancer Caregiver

by Margaretta Page, RN, MS

Being a cancer caregiver can be a daunting task. Family caregivers are expected to step up and become extensions of the healthcare team, often without much choice and with little to no training. This is all in addition to fulfilling the family roles the caregiver had prior to cancer entering the family picture. 

When a person is thrust suddenly into the role of cancer caregiver, they may experience feelings of shock, grief, loss, sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, and fear. These are all normal and to be expected. In addition, caregivers may feel overwhelmed or overloaded, they may notice changes in their relationship with the loved one they are caring for, and they may feel uncertain about the future. All of this can lead to caregiver distress and burnout.

Self-Care Strategies for Cancer Caregivers

  • Eat well. 
  • Get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
  • Exercise
  • Take care of your physical and mental health
  • Accept help. 
  • Take breaks.
  • Find ways to relax. 
  • Maintain a sense of humor

To avoid caregiving burnout, you must remember to take care of yourself while you are giving care to your loved one. Here are some things you can do to prioritize your own self-care and help prevent caregiver burnout.

  • Acknowledge the work you are doing. Admit that it can be challenging and may require skills or expertise you have not yet acquired. 
  • Gather knowledge about your loved one’s illness. Find and access the resources available to you. 
  • Focus on changing the things you can control. Make adjustments at work and at home that make your life easier. For example, using adaptive devices, asking friends and family for help at home, reducing your work hours.
  • Learn to let go of those things you can’t control.
  • Delegate tasks that others can do so you have more time to focus on your loved one with cancer and on yourself. 
  • Remember what is important. Focus on that.

• Make time for fun. Schedule activities that you and your loved one can do together that have nothing to do with their illness. Watch a movie. Sit down to a nice dinner. Go for walk or a scenic drive. 
• Think about a time when you overcame a challenging situation. How did you do it? What worked? What didn’t? Try out those methods of coping that worked for you in the past. They’ll likely help you get through this challenging situation as well.
• Reframe your negative thoughts.
• Attend to your physical health. See your doctor for check-ups. Get proper sleep, and make sure your emotional health is in check. If your physical, mental, or emotional health is suffering, it impairs your ability to help your loved one.
• Get support. Make an effort to stay connected to friends and family. Maybe even join a support group. 
• Foster resilience. Resilience is the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity. It is not an extraordinary trait. We all have the capacity for it. But resilience must be nurtured, particularly in times of stress. Try these strategies to help build resilience: 

  • Write in a journal. Use it to keep track of your thoughts, reflections, or strategies you are using to cope with your loved one’s illness. 
  • Set a daily intention. How would you like to live today? What characteristic, trait, or value would you like to amplify? Name it and call it to mind when things are tough. Take some time at the end of the day to reflect on how you did. 
  • Focus on the positive. Look for things that went well each day. Maybe start a gratitude practice. At the end of each day, take a moment to list one to three things you are grateful for. 
  • Do something creative. Art, music, dance, sewing. Your choice.
  • Try something new. It can be big or small. Even something as simple as taking a different route home from the doctor’s office counts. 
  • Don’t underestimate your role as a cancer caregiver. Remember, what you are doing is important. Think about something new you learned or something you accomplished today. And give yourself a pat on the back. Each morning, take five to ten minutes to organize and prioritize the day ahead. Set small goals, and take credit for even tiny victories. 
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There’s no question that taking on the role of caregiver for a loved one with cancer is challenging. However, as difficult as caregiving can be, it can also be rewarding. Don’t forget that when times are tough. And don’t forget to take care of yourself, either. Your loved one needs you whole and well. 

Margaretta Page

Margaretta Page is codirector of the University of California San Francisco Neuro-Oncology Gordon Murray Caregiver Program in San Francisco, CA.

November is National Family Caregivers Month. It is a time to recognize and honor family caregivers across the country. To learn more, visit

This article was published in
Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2019.

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