4 Ways Caregivers Can Better Care for Themselves

Kelly Trevino, Ph.D.Kelly Trevino, Ph.D.

Caring for someone with cancer can have a mental, emotional, and physical impact on all those who love the person dealing with the diagnosis. While many friends and family members may play a significant role in providing assistance and support throughout the cancer experience, there is often a primary caregiver who puts the most time and effort into helping the patient.

Primary caregivers may be responsible for scheduling and attending appointments, organizing transportation, managing medication, and navigating insurance — all on top of regular housekeeping duties, career obligations, and possibly, childcare. In other words, becoming a caregiver is an immensely challenging undertaking — one that no one is ever truly prepared to handle.

To help make the caregiver experience a little less overwhelming, we asked Kelly Trevino, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist within Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian’s Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, for some ways that caregivers can better care for themselves while they care for the patient they love. 

1. Change Perspective

Many caregivers struggle to fathom why and how they should make maintaining their own health a priority when someone they love is dealing with a disease as serious as cancer. They think that because they are not the sick person, their health should take a back seat. While the patient’s health may take precedence, caregivers must keep in mind that they cannot do their job well if they are not well themselves. Self-care is vital to being an effective caregiver. Caregivers are also important independent of their connection to the cancer patient and deserve to be as healthy as they can, particularly during such a difficult time.

2. Act Early

Stress is an inevitable part of the cancer experience, but it can lead to serious problems if caregivers become so stressed that they neglect their own physical or mental health. It is important to begin reserving time for self-care immediately upon a loved one’s diagnosis, instead of implementing a plan after the demands of caregiving become too burdensome. Self-care should include getting enough sleep, nourishment, and exercise, as well as engaging in activities to decompress, like spending time with friends or enjoying the outdoors. 

3. Open Up

Caregivers and patients often try to protect one another by hiding negative thoughts and feelings with a smile, but it can be unhealthy and unproductive to bottle emotions and pretend that nothing is wrong. Expressing suffering independently of each other is important, so do not hesitate to seek professional mental health support. It can also be helpful to join a support group to meet other families dealing with a similar situation and learn different ways to cope. Click here to learn more about the variety of support groups offered to caregivers at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. 

4. Reach Out

Cancer is too difficult to manage alone, so tap into the pool of loved ones who are eager to help in any way that they can. Since coordinating all of that help can sometimes become its own stressor, it may be wise to choose a trusted friend or family member to act as a point person to highlight unmet needs and organize offers accordingly. There are even free resources available online, such as Lotsa Helping Hands, that make it easy to unite a community of supporters and strategically plan their involvement in the cancer care experience.

Cancer can be scary, confusing, mentally and physically draining – and extremely hard to navigate without help. Caregivers are essential members of the cancer care team, and they should always remember that as they accompany their loved one through the ups and downs of the disease, it is vital that they look to others for help, ask questions about anything that is unclear, and most importantly, take care of themselves. 

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