When Cancer Hits Close to Home: Help for Caregivers to Manage the Stress

By Lisa M. Petsche

A diagnosis of cancer is unsettling and oftentimes frightening for the diagnosed person and those close to them. It launches them into a whole new world of medical information and jargon and medical procedures. Consultations, tests and treatments may consume large amounts of time, overshadowing everyday life. If the diagnosed person has pre-existing health conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia, caregiving demands are multiplied.

If you are caring for an older relative who’s been diagnosed with cancer, the following are some things you can do to help yourself and your loved one manage the stress.

Accept
  • Accept the reality of your relative’s illness. Let go of any bitterness resulting from interrupted plans and dreams so that you can channel your energy in constructive ways.
  • Recognize that you are only human and allow yourself to experience all emotions that surface.
  • Accept your relative’s right to make choices you don’t agree with and withhold judgment.
  • Bear in mind that cancer affects people physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and that, although there may be similarities, no two people will experience it the same way.
  • Accept that how your relative feels and what they can do may fluctuate, and be flexible about plans and expectations.
Learn
  • Educate yourself about your relative’s type of cancer. Share the information with family and friends to help them understand the choices and challenges faced by your relative and you.
  • Find out about community services that can assist you and your relative. The local American Cancer Society office is a good resource, as well as the local Area Agency on Aging.
Communicate
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to adjust to your relative’s illness and the changes it necessitates. Your relative will also need time to adapt. Be patient and keep communication lines open.
  • Allow your relative to express any and all emotions; don’t try to talk them out of their feelings or change the subject because of your discomfort. Also, don’t take bad moods personally.
  • Involve your relative (if able) and other family members in decision-making as much as possible. Don’t shoulder all of the responsibility.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions, express concerns and offer opinions when meeting with health professionals. Bring a notebook to appointments and write out questions in advance.
  • Keep the rest of the family informed of changes in your relative’s treatment plan and health status.
Prepare
  • Find out what to expect in terms of treatment side effects or probable symptom progression if a cure is not possible, as well as caregiving skills, medical equipment and community supports likely to be needed.
  • Talk openly with your relative about their wishes. Discuss living arrangements, outside help, surrogate decision-making, medical intervention and end-of-life care and funeral arrangements. Be careful, though, not to make promises you may not be able to keep.
  • Help your relative get their affairs in order, including completing legal paperwork such as advance directives, powers of attorney and a will.
Simplify
  • Eliminate as many sources of stress in your life as possible. Set priorities, streamline tasks and learn to settle for less than perfection.
  • Take things one day at a time so you don’t become overwhelmed.
  • Learn to live in the moment and focus on life’s simpler pleasures.
Practice Self-Care
  • Set aside quiet time each day, to nurture your spirituality and help keep you grounded.
  • Do something that provides you with meaning and purpose outside of the caregiving role, such as scrapbooking or researching your family tree.
  • Look after your health. Eat nutritious meals, get adequate rest, exercise and see your primary physician regularly.
  • Find something relaxing you can do to give yourself a daily break – perhaps reading, writing or listening to music.
  • Schedule regular breaks from caregiving duties. Take a couple of hours, a day or an overnight. By being kind to yourself this way, you’ll also be more effective when you resume your caregiving tasks.
Connect
  • Stay connected to your friends.
  • Find at least one person you can talk to openly – someone who will listen and empathize. It’s important to express your thoughts and feelings.
  • Talk with other caregivers. They understand better than anyone else what you are going through. Join a support group in your community or on the Internet. Your relative may also benefit from a group for cancer patients.
  • Continue to involve your relative in family activities and community events as their energy permits.
Get Help
  • Accept offers of help. Ask other family members to share the load and be specific about the kind of help you need. You can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything alone.
  • Take advantage of outpatient and home healthcare services in your community.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer who has personal and professional experience with elder care.

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