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Caring for Yourself, When You're the Caregiver

After receiving an initial diagnosis and beginning treatment to overcome cancer, many patients rely on family members or other loved ones to take on the role of a caregiver. Caregivers often assume a number of key responsibilities in addition to the usual family activities. This includes coordinating appointments, organizing medical reports and financial matters, communicating with the health care team, transportation, and keeping other family and friends updated.

Unfortunately, many caregivers invest so much of their time and energy into taking care of a loved one that they either forget or neglect to take care of their own physical and emotional needs. This can lead to a phenomenon known as Compassion Fatigue, according to Mary Szczepanik, System Director of Supportive Cancer Care at OhioHealth.

“Caregivers may experience compassion fatigue and there’s no timetable for it. It could set in pretty quickly or it could take months for them to start experiencing some of the symptoms. If a caregiver notices worsening irritability, sleep issues, anxiety, depression, issues at work, or new physical symptoms, they should seek help.”

Despite the significant challenges that cancer caregivers face, Szczepanik believes that there are several steps they can take to overcome burnout.

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Call in the Troops

When one person becomes responsible for the needs of a cancer patient, it can become burdensome for the caregiver. They find it difficult to find time to do things they enjoy such as spending time with other loved ones. It can also create resentment in families if caregiving responsibilities fall on one person. Szczepanik recommends being specific when asking other relatives for help if they need some relief, or even looking into professionals that can provide temporary in-home care.

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Talk to a Counselor or Someone You Trust

Watching the health of a loved one worsen can cause emotional trauma for caregivers. When dealing with these issues, it’s important that they have a licensed professional or a trusted confidante to share any feelings or emotions that have developed during their loved one’s fight against cancer.

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Find a Way to Do Things You Enjoy

Some caregivers feel guilty for doing things that they enjoy while their loved one is undergoing treatment, but it’s important for them to remain physically and emotionally healthy. While it may not be possible to get that morning jog in everyday or to cook a favorite meal for dinner, finding time to do those things every once in a while can help caregivers maintain a healthy personal life. Caregivers can include their loved one in the activities if they are healthy enough to participate, according to Szczepanik, which benefits both the caregiver and the patient.

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Know How to Talk to Your Loved One’s Health Care Team

Treatment plans for cancer patients can be complex and difficult for caregivers and patients to understand. The uncertainty can create additional stress in what is already a difficult situation to manage. Keep a record of questions to ask, things to report to the doctor, possible side effects, test results and next steps. Being prepared for an appointment can ensure that important questions get answered and make it easier to share the information with other relatives looking for answers.

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Understand Your Loved One’s Wishes

Knowing what a loved one’s wishes are while they are still able to communicate them can be a tremendous relief for a caregiver, particularly if the loved one has been diagnosed as terminal. Being equipped with the knowledge of personal or medical wishes in a worst case scenario gives the caregiver comfort, knowing that their loved one’s wishes are going to be respected.

Looking to connect with others like you? Learn more about OhioHealth’s Support Groups.