Caregivers: Remember to Care For Yourself

Support for Caregivers

Cancer patients’ caregivers are often “hard to get through to,” said Annie Trance, MSW, LISW-S, Program Manager, Psychosocial Oncology, at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

By this, Trance means that in many cases, the spouse, parent, child or friend who takes care of a loved one battling cancer often devotes all of his or her time and energy to these loved ones. “These caregivers are juggling not only dealing with the cancer, but they may also have to work and may have other family members to take care of, perhaps young children, and they also have to arrange for meals and for medical appointments,” Trance said. “They don’t prioritize any time for themselves and, when they do, they feel guilty.”

If Trance could sum up her message to caregivers — the unsung heroes of so many cancer journeys — in one sentence, it would be: “Caregivers also need to take care of themselves.”

This is easier said than done, and that’s why Trance and the Psychosocial Oncology team work with cancer patients and their caregivers to recognize and deal with all the stresses and anxieties they face. It’s also why JamesCare for Life offers several programs designed to help caregivers take better care of their loved ones — and themselves.

It’s important.

November is National Caregivers Month. JamesCare for Life hosted its Caregiver Conference: Caring For Your Loved Ones With Cancer on Nov. 19, and Caregiving 101 on Nov. 30, which was led by Trance.

Recent research indicates what Trance calls a reciprocal relationship between a cancer patient and their caregiver. In other words: The more anxious and stressed a patient is, the more stressed and anxious their caregiver will become, and vice versa. Research has also shown that how well the patient is able to cope with the stress and anxiety of cancer treatment “has a direct correlation on treatment adherence and outcomes,” Trance said.

This is why it’s important for caregivers to take care of themselves, so they can take better care of their loved ones.

Cindy Kip’s son, Alex, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2010 while he was a senior in college. He was treated successfully at the OSUCCC – James, but it was a long and difficult battle filled with ups and downs and several hospital stays.

Cindy Kip was her son’s primary caregiver, with help from her husband and daughter, who was in college in Kentucky, and it was a stressful time for this close-knit family.

“So many people came to me and said, ‘What can I do to help?’” Cindy Kip said. “And I always tended not to take people up on it.”

Eventually, Cindy learned to say yes, and allow people to help.

“People really want to help and if you let them, if you say out loud what you need, your family and friends will do it,” she said. For the Kips, this meant help with preparing meals, visits to the OSUCCC – James when Alex was in the hospital for treatment, and helping Cindy get some “me time” by taking her out to lunch.

The OSUCCC – James’ Psychosocial Oncology team counsels many cancer patients and, in some cases, their caregivers are part of the counseling process.

“The first issue is creating the awareness that the patient and the caregiver will experience an emotional reaction to the cancer process and it may break down communication between them,” Trance said, adding that pre-existing communication and relationship issues can be exacerbated by the stress of a cancer diagnosis.

One of the important issues to communicate is the fears that so many patients and their caregivers are reluctant to address. There are fears at every stage of the cancer journey, from the initial and life-changing diagnosis, through all the treatments and the side effects they create, post treatment for patients who go into remission, and the fears of those whose cancer continues to progress.

Again, the key is communication.

“It’s getting people to be open and honest with one another,” Trance said. “And we look at people’s coping styles and help them work on them if there’s a problem.”

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of the caregiver’ role in a patient’s cancer treatment, and the OSUCCC – James at the forefront of this trend.

“A lot of caregivers can fall into the trap of making the patient the whole focus all the time,” Trance said. “They forget to take care of themselves and this eventually predisposes them to feel more stress and have more coping problems.”

Many caregivers are initially resistant to this concept.

“A lot of what we do is provide normalization and validation of how caregivers are feeling and that it’s to be expected,” Trance said. “And some caregivers say, ‘Wow, I’m not the first and only person to feel this way, it’s normal.”

Here are some additional tips for caregivers from the OSUCCC – James Patient Education Department:

  • Get plenty of rest, eat healthy meals and exercise.
  • Ask for help from family, friends or clergy.
  • When help is offered, let them know what they can do, such as cooking meals, housework, running errands, or providing childcare.
  • Plan an hour a day or an afternoon each week away from caregiving.
  • Talk with others about your feelings. Join a support group. Talk to a counselor or therapist.
  • Write down your feelings in a journal.
  • Practice meditation and other relaxation techniques such as prayer, yoga and tai chi.
  • Take a walk or do other exercise, work in the garden, take a bubble bath, listen to music, read or watch TV to rest your mind and help you relax.
  • Treat yourself to a gift of a magazine, flowers or dinner out.
  • Talk to your doctor about your life change and keep your own doctor’s appointments. 

For more information on support for caregivers, visit our website.
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