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When a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, a spouse, parent, or close friend often takes on a caregiver role. Since they are not paid, they are called informal caregivers or family caregivers. Most caregivers are women (60%), middle-aged, and have a full time job (59%).
In addition to their previous roles, caregivers often coordinate cancer care, manage finances, help with dressing, eating, bathing, and giving medication, make medical decisions, and shuttle the cancer patient to doctor appointments, tests, and treatments. In some cases, the caregiver also shops for food, prepares meals and snacks, performs housecleaning, and washes the clothes for a second household. These extra duties squeeze much of the free time from the caregiver’s schedule, which creates stress.
These stresses can contribute to coronary heart disease, impaired immune responses, and an early death. Signs of high stress levels include constant concern and worry, altered sleep patterns (too much or too little), change in appetite and / or bowel movements, feeling overwhelmed, rapid weight changes, and exhaustion or fatigue much of the time.
Many doctors treat cancer as the enemy in a war game. However, enemies usually last a lifetime. Instead, consider cancer as a teacher since teachers quietly disappear after the lessons are learned. This change in perspective may reduce the fight or flight response and may help reduce stress.
9 Tips for Coping as a Caretaker of a Cancer Patient
- Take time off: Caregivers are usually going 110% all the time. It’s important for you to take a break, even if it’s a short time once a week. Pursue a relaxing activity for yourself, such as working in the garden, catching up with a hobby, walking outside, or napping.
- Accept help: Accept offers of help from friends, family, and colleagues.
- Choose tasks for helpers: Decide what type of assistance would reduce your stress. Possibilities include cleaning the house, taking your loved one for treatments, bringing dinner, mowing the lawn, being a companion, etc. Then when a coworker, neighbor, family or friends ask what they can do to help, you can easily mention several options for them to choose.
- Allow saddness: Some caregivers of cancer patients find that allowing yourself to grieve for 15 min per day or week helps release stress. When the timer rings, they literally shake it off (one limb at a time), and then continue with their day.
- Deep breathing: Deep breathing can be relaxing, especially outside in clean air. Slow deep breathing helps calm the mind, body, and spirit.
- Exercise: Exercise everyday helps to relieve stress. Spend 10-20 min doing some type of physical activity, such as walking, yoga, biking, dancing, or swimming. You’ll feel better and will be able to sleep better.
- Eat a proper diet: Eating balanced meals that contain dark green and colored vegetables helps maintain a healthy immune system. While mesothelioma is associated with asbestos exposure, one clinical survey indicates that eating vegetables may modestly reduce the risk of developing it in those exposed to asbestos. The nutritional status of a mesothelioma patient at diagnosis also helps predict survival. Since a spouse (caregiver) may have received a lower exposure to asbestos (by washing clothes), it may be wise to eat foods that have reduced the risk at least weekly, maybe daily. The following foods reduced the risk of developing mesothelioma in a case control study:
- a. home grown vegetables (in other words, organic fresh vegetables)
- b. cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, turnips, mustard)
- c. carotene containing vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, beet greens, swiss chard, spinach, romaine lettuce, squash, cantaloupe, sweet red peppers)
- Stay organized: Staying organized can be very helpful when answering questions. Storing the tests, bills, handouts, and brochures related to the cancer and the patient’s treatments in a folder or a three ring binder can save time, too.
- Find community resources: Looking up community resources for caregivers may identify ways to share duties of the caregiver.
Helpful Community Resources
Support groups can provide alternate strategies that other caregivers have found useful. Your local cancer clinic, major teaching hospitals, and online communities often hold monthly or weekly meetings for caregivers to get together, support each other, and learn additional strategies.
Respite services provide respite helpers who spend time with your loved one. Then you are free to run errands, rest, see friends, or whatever is needed. Nonprofit groups, governmental agencies, neighbors, members of your faith, family, and friends may offer to provide companionship.
Some people find strength from their faith and religion. A local leader in your religious community or a specially trained counselor for cancer patients and their families can help provide spiritual support for both the caregiver and the cancer patient.
Community services include meal delivery, legal and financial counseling, transportation, and home care services such as companionship, cooking, and housecleaning.
Adult day care centers are often located in churches or community centers. While many centers provide care for only elderly, centers that provide care for both young children and elderly often encourage interaction during story time for several hours. Both groups enjoy it.
- National Alliance for Caregiving
- Family Caregiver Alliance: Phone: 800-445-8106
- Caregiver Action Network: Phone: 202-772-5050
- National Respite Locator Service: Phone: 919-490-5577
Alternative Therapy Options for Releasing Stress
Any strategy that works for you to reduce stress would be a huge benefit. For example, some caregivers find that yoga, tai chi, kick boxing, dancing, Zumba, playing games, walking the dog, watching comedies, and going to a local concert help take your mind off of the health issues. Some people in creative jobs may even find work to be relaxing because it takes their mind off the situation.
If the cancer patient and caregiver share experiences doing other activities unrelated to the cancer, then conversation can expand beyond the health issues.
Meditation and deep slow breathing can also be relaxing. Even if you miss a day or two of meditation or exercise, start up again today.
Schiffman, M. H. et al. Case-control study of diet and mesothelioma in Louisiana. Cancer Res 48, 2911-2915 (1988).
Yao, Z. H. et al. Prognostic nutritional index predicts outcomes of malignant pleural mesothelioma. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol 139, 2117-2123, doi:10.1007/s00432-013-1523-0 (2013).
Resources for Mesothelioma Patients and their Families
- Request a Free Mesothelioma Treatment Guide
- Connect with Top Mesothelioma Doctors
- Locate the Nearest Comprehensive Cancer Center