Self-Care Tips for Cancer Caregivers

Posted on July 11, 2022 in Tips

Written by Dr. Corso

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Cancer is life-changing, and not just for the patient. In the wake of a diagnosis, a spouse, family member, or close friend may become a cancer caregiver. As a caregiver, this person provides daily support — from medication management to toileting assistance — but isn’t paid to do so.

Caregivers spend an average of 23.7 hours a week providing care, often while working a full-time job and raising children. This leaves little time to exercise, cook nutritious meals, and look after their own health. As a result, many cancer caregivers experience a state of exhaustion called caregiver burnout. 

To avoid this debilitating psychological condition, read on for important self-care tips.

What Is Caregiver Burnout?

oncologist with patient talking about prostate cancer

Caregiver burnout, also called compassion fatigue, is a condition characterized by extreme physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Burnout happens when the cancer caregiver feels overwhelmed by their role. This can affect the caregiver’s ability to provide support. 

More specifically, caregiver burnout can be caused by:


Lack of Support

Some people are solely responsible for a parent or spouse; they have no friends or family who can help out. This heavy workload, often coupled with a 9-to-5 job, can contribute to extreme stress. 


Unrealistic Expectations

Many cancer caregivers set high standards for themselves. They may feel guilty if they order takeout one night instead of cooking or are unavailable to drive their loved one to the doctor. The cancer patient may also have unrealistic expectations of their caregiver, expecting them to be present 24/7.


Role Confusion

When an adult child cares for a parent, that role reversal can cause cognitive dissonance. You may feel resentment or anger toward your parent. Similarly, your parent may struggle to let go of control and allow you to make decisions. 

7 Self-Care Tips for Cancer Caregivers

Self-care is the intentional practice of nurturing your own health and well-being. Though self-care is very much centered on your own mental and physical needs, other people benefit too. That’s because when you take better care of yourself, you can take better care of loved ones.

Below, we have compiled seven self-care tips. Feel free to mix and match these practices to create your own daily routine.


Get Moving

When we exercise, our bodies release a slurry of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, dopamine, and adrenaline. These chemicals have been shown to change brain structure and function, helping people recover from stress and anxiety disorders.

It’s recommended that adults aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day. However, any is better than none and you should consult with your physician before partaking in strenuous exercise. 

If you’re especially pressed for time, consider high-intensity interval training (HIIT). These workouts tend to last about 20 minutes but burn 25 to 30 percent more calories than other forms of exercise.


Count Sheep

Sleeping is the most underrated form of self-care, especially in today’s fast-paced, over-caffeinated society. Adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night. If you’re not snoozing long enough, you could be putting yourself at risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke.

If you’re like most caregivers, stress might be keeping you up. The solution? Besides limiting coffee and turning off tech, try listing three things you’re grateful for as you rest in bed. Focusing on the positive aspects of your life will help stave off nighttime anxiety.


Pause and Reflect

In recent years, scientists have unveiled the amazing physical and mental benefits of journaling. In one study, for instance, researchers found that keeping a daily log boosts the immune system by strengthening cells called T-lymphocytes. These cells fight viruses and disease. 

Taking time to pause and reflect also helps caregivers unpack complicated feelings. Writing allows you to express rather than suppress thoughts associated with traumatic events, such as witnessing your loved one’s health decline.


Make an Appointment (Or Two)

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the CDC, caregivers report twice as many chronic conditions (e.g. heart attack, cancer, diabetes) than people who aren’t caregivers. Why? Though there are many factors at play, the most obvious is a lack of preventative care. 

Preoccupied with their loved one’s needs, caregivers often skip routine medical appointments. In doing so, they put themselves at risk of developing life-threatening diseases. 

As a cancer caregiver, it’s imperative that you make your mammogram appointment, get your teeth cleaned, visit your psychiatrist, and make time for your own health.


Seek Silence

In a world loudened by televisions and cell phone notifications, silence can feel elusive. But dialing down the noise has lasting health benefits such as reduced anxiety, lowered blood pressure, and better sleep.

If you’re solely responsible for a loved one, it’s even more important that you find a few quiet moments of alone time. You could, for instance, wake up 15 minutes earlier than everyone in your house and spend that time meditating. Or, you could make your car a “noise-free” space by cutting off the radio and silencing your phone.


Phone a Friend

Grabbing drinks with coworkers or going for a hike with your spouse might seem like a luxury, especially when you’re looking after a loved one with cancer. However, taking time to nurture strong relationships is crucial to your physical and mental health. 

According to one study, simply receiving a hug can relieve negative emotions. Social support can also help us cope with the trauma of filling a caregiver role. But what if you don’t have time for a night out? Consider scheduling a quick, 20-minute phone call with a close friend.


Ask For Help

For many caregivers, asking for help is uncomfortable. Recognizing that you can’t do everything alone might make you feel like a failure. 

However, being brave enough to verbalize that you need support is a sign of strength — not of weakness. 

Begin by making a list of what you need help with. You might need someone to take your mother to her radiotherapy sessions or you might need financial assistance to help pay for medical treatment. From there, reach out to people in your family, circle of friends, and community. 

You might also consider hiring a respite worker to sit with your loved one so that you can run errands and have time alone. Or, you may consider a skilled nursing community if you can no longer provide the intensive medical care your loved one needs.

Cancer Caregiver Resources

At SERO, our radiation oncologists understand how heartbreaking it can be to watch someone you love battle cancer. It can be even more upsetting to unexpectedly assume a caregiver role and be responsible for a cancer patient’s daily needs. 

However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. To help you navigate this journey, we have compiled a list of resources that benefit patients and caregivers alike. 

If you have a question about your loved one’s treatment plan or about radiation therapy, contact us today.