Written by SMH Cancer Care Counselor Elizabeth Bornstein
Last year, 15.5 million people in the U.S. were living with cancer. This year, another 1,688,780 people will be diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society. Many of these cancer patients will, at some point, come to depend on the care and support of a trusted family member.
Nearly 44 million adults in the U.S. are informal caregivers, providing personal assistance for family members with disabilities or other care needs. More than 34 million of them care for frail elders, and nearly 4 million help children with disabilities. About 6.5 million care for both, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP.
Cancer’s Toll on Caregivers
When a person is diagnosed with cancer, his or her world is turned upside-down, revolving around doctors’ appointments, surgeries, treatments and recovery. The cancer journey requires difficult conversations, advance care planning, and for some, concerns about advanced illness or end-of-life plans.
It can be an incredibly challenging experience for the person with cancer, and it can weigh just as heavily on their caregiver, and other loved ones.
Caregivers face significant uncertainty just as the person with cancer does. They also take on a range of new responsibilities, whether temporarily or for the long haul. Cancer caregivers give of themselves 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It can be exhausting work—physically and emotionally—but they are less likely to make time for their own health needs and are at higher risk for getting sick.
They can feel overwhelmed with emotions and responsibilities, while trying to deal with the grief and sense of loss that accompany unwanted change and health threats. Caregivers also are at equal risk for anxiety and depressive symptoms as the person with cancer.
Self Care and Support
So, how can a cancer caregiver practice self-care? Where can they find support and help with managing the emotional and physical overwhelm?
In my years of working with patients who have cancer and their caregivers / loved ones, I’ve learned some effective ways for cancer caregivers to care for themselves. Here are the basics:
- Focus on priorities and make a commitment to decreasing stress as much as possible daily.
- Boost energy daily by nourishing, hydrating, exercising and getting adequate sleep.
- Pace yourself by living in the present moment, setting limits and letting go of what is no longer serves you well.
- Ask for help and seek support.
This essential self-care process will lead to greater satisfaction with caregiving and will increase opportunities for much needed relaxation and joy. By realizing how strong, courageous and capable they are, caregivers often find a new sense of meaning and purpose in life.
One of the most beneficial things a caregiver can do is seek support. Below are some local programs and groups dedicated to helping cancer caregivers thrive.
Local Cancer Caregiver Support
Sarasota Memorial Cancer Care Thrive program: Outpatient counseling and cancer support and wellness programs; 941-917-7827
Friendship Center’s Caregiver Resource Center: 941-556-3268
Jewish Family & Children’s Service of the Suncoast: Cancer support and caregiver support group, 941-366-2224, ext. 167
Other Helpful Resources
American Cancer Society: 800-227-2345
Family Caregiver Alliance’s National Center on Caregiving: 800-445-8106
National Alliance for Caregiving: 301-718-8444
Elizabeth Bornstein, MSSA, LCSW, OSW-C is a licensed and Oncology-certified Clinical Social Worker with advanced training in mind-body medicine and expressive arts. She provides outpatient psychosocial counseling for Sarasota Memorial Health Care System’s Institute for Cancer Care. You can reach her at 941-917-7293.