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Lean Into Love – Coping as a Caregiver

Submitted by Nataliya Melnyk, MD

You probably didn’t see it coming and had no way to prepare, but here you are – someone you love has received a diagnosis that rocks your world. Your role has shifted; life has changed. You are the caregiver, the one responsible for maintaining daily physical needs and navigating the heavy emotional peaks and valleys of a cancer diagnosis that is not your own. Caregiving is a high honor and a harrowing journey of leaning into love you didn’t know existed to summon strength and learn to balance two lives well.  Burnout comes easily because caregiving can take a toll both emotionally and physically. When you’re focused on tending to the needs of someone you love, you tend to brush aside your own needs, so it is important to be mindful and know how to cope as a caregiver.

Emotional Wellbeing  

Caregiving is stressful. Your emotions are intense and varying. You may feel pressure, guilt, resentment, anger, worry, loneliness, and grief. Know this is normal, and you are not failing as a caregiver because you feel overwhelmed. But knowing how to manage stress and emotions is key to avoiding burnout.  Llardo and Rothman refer to following tips as the “Caregiver’s STOP Sign.”

S = Seek out opportunities for support. Expand your social circle—real and virtual. Find a support group with other caregivers.
T = Take time for the things you enjoy. It may not look the same, but make time for things you enjoy. Maintaining your own identity is too important to neglect. So listen to music, watch a movie, read, write, but don’t give up who you are.
O = Opt for help whenever you can. Learn to say yes to help that is offered to you.
P = Prioritize your needs. Since you can’t do everything you’d like to do, you need to choose what’s most important to you. If exercise means more to you than meeting a friend for coffee, then forget the coffee and go exercise.

Physical Wellbeing
As a caregiver, you are so focused on the needs of your loved one that you tend to neglect your own health, but taking care of yourself can actually make you stronger and happier, giving you the boost you need to take care of those who need you. Here are some things to keep in mind to stay on top of your health:

  • Nutrition-It may seem easiest to grab fast food or to skip meals altogether, but don’t make this a habit. A regular healthy diet with fruits, vegetables and protein is key to keeping up your energy
  • Exercise-Being active for 30 minutes can help you maintain stamina. Easy tasks such as household chores and gardening can get you moving. If your care recipient is able, go for a walk or include them in something active when possible.
  • Rest-Practicing good sleeping habits (6-8 hours each night) will help with emotional and physical health. Learn a few breathing techniques to wind down at the end of each night and help release the stress of the day.
  • Keep up with your own doctor’s appointments, medications and screening-Don’t neglect your own health needs. Stay on track with your medication regimens and appointments to stay healthy.

Be Proactive
Bad days are inevitable because life is unpredictable, especially when caring for a loved one with cancer. But knowing your limits, asking for help, and being proactive to stay emotionally and physically well will cut down on the bad days. Seek out a safe circle of friends, spiritual leaders, counselors, or support groups where you can be yourself and vent if needed. Just having the freedom to speak honestly about how you feel and what you need can make the overwhelming situations seem more manageable. Lean into the love others offer you and acknowledge the gift you’re offering through this incredible act of love and service.

Llardo, J. & Rothman, C. R. (1999). I’ll Take Care of You: A Practical Guide for Family Caregivers. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, CA.

Nataliya Melnyk, MD, joined Beebe's Tunnell Cancer Center following completion of her Fellowship in Hematology Oncology at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey. While there, she participated in several cancer research efforts, including those for advanced melanoma and sarcoma. She also has completed research on hematological abnormalities in pregnancy and neurological syndromes associated with tumors. Dr. Melnyk earned her medical degree in 2002 at the Ternopil State Medical Academy in Ukraine, and completed her internal medicine residency at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center. She is Board Certified in Internal Medicine.

Find out more about Cancer Care at Beebe.