by Emily Drake
Caring for a person with cancer can be extremely rewarding, but it can be exhausting as well. A diagnosis of cancer during adolescence and young adulthood interrupts a person’s life and comes at a time when they are trying to complete the life steps (education, job, etc.) that are necessary for transition into adulthood. For example, they may have just moved away from home to find employment or go to school. They could be living with their parents, in a dorm room, with friends, or on their own. For this and many other reasons, the role of caregiver for these patients and survivors may be filled by a number of different people. You could be a parent or a grandparent. You could be their spouse, or a person that they just started dating. You could even be someone who is not a family member at all — a friend or a neighbor. You may be asking yourself, who is a caregiver? Am I a caregiver? A caregiver is anyone who provides care for, or assists, a cancer patient or survivor.
Stress related to caregiving can lead to health problems down the road. Therefore, it is important that as caregivers of cancer patients and survivors you take care of your physical, social and mental health needs in order to prevent becoming overwhelmed. A number of researchers have studied this topic and the following is a list of tips compiled from their work on how to handle stress and avoid caregiver burnout.
1. Do not handle everything alone. It is important to have realistic expectations. You are only one person and you cannot do everything. Get help. Maximize your support network by seeking out resources available through local and national cancer organizations, community groups, health professionals and the government. Do not discourage others from helping you and do not feel ashamed to ask for help.
2. Talk to others. Openly discuss your concerns and fears with someone that you trust. Be aware that you need emotional support too. Talking to others not only relieves stress, but can give you a new perspective on things. If joining a support group is of interest to you, contact your local and national cancer organizations to see what programs are available in your area. If you would like one-on-one support, Imerman Angels connects cancer caregivers with each other. Contact health professionals if you have specific health-related concerns.
3. Maintain your social connections. Do not isolate yourself from your community. Attend social events and participate in recreational activities that are of interest to you. Having social support can have major health benefits and help you maintain your quality of life. If you are able to, include the patient or survivor whom you are caring for. However, do not feel guilty if you need to do some things on your own.
4. Do not avoid your problems. If you are presented with an obstacle, it is better to focus on the problem at hand and develop a strategy to handle it than to put it aside. Avoiding what is bothering you will only cause you more stress.
5. Take conscious care of your health each day. Get at least seven hours of sleep a night, eat right and get regular exercise.
6. Take time outs. It is important to admit when you have had enough and need to take time away when you can no longer cope with your situation. Create a schedule that is manageable for yourself and the person for whom you are caring. Make sure to include breaks, even just 15 minutes each day. This will allow you to increase your efficiency as a caregiver. If respite care is a possibility for you, take advantage of it.
7. Educate yourself about cancer. Learn about the specific type of cancer that the person you are caring for has. Learn about the social and psychological effects that a diagnosis of cancer – the disease and its treatment – can have on adolescents and young adults. Information is empowering. The more you know about this disease and the resources that are available, the better prepared you will be both physically and mentally to take on the challenges ahead. Educating yourself will not only allow you to create realistic expectations, but it will help you become a more effective caregiver as well.
Remember that taking care of yourself is not a luxury — it is a vital necessity. By taking care of your own health, you will be in a better position to provide the best care possible. If you are showing signs of stress, or are depressed, make sure that you talk to your doctor.
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Emily Drake, BScH, MA, is a psychosocial oncology researcher, health promotion specialist (consultant) and owns and operates an independent healthcare consultancy that services universities, hospitals, non-profit and for-profit industries. She received her Bachelor of Science with Honours degree from Acadia University and her Master of Arts degree in health promotion from Dalhousie University where she completed her master’s thesis that looked at the experience of sexuality of young adult cancer survivors.
Emily has experience speaking nationally about various issues that adolescent and young adult cancer survivors face, including sexuality.
She can be contacted at: EmilyKMDrake (at) gmail (dot) com
Or on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/EK_Drake