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Put Your Oxygen Mask On First – Self Help for Caregivers

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September 15 2015

Posted in: Counselling, Caregiver,

Put Your Oxygen Mask On First: Self Help for Caregivers.

By Anne Pitman, OICC Care Coordinator.

As caregivers we walk beside a loved one who is facing cancer.  Sometimes our role is very active – cooking, cleaning, helping to make treatment decisions, organizing and driving to appointments.  Sometimes we are there primarily and importantly for emotional support.  All this is so critical for the one facing cancer.  But who supports the caregiver?

Cancer is rarely a one person event.  Families and friends gather around, sometimes more frequently right after the diagnosis, but those that linger and continue care, often for years, are susceptible to burn out.  In my work as a Care Coordinator at the OICC, when I ask the caregiver how they are feeling with all that is happening, they are often shocked:  not knowing how to answer, not really aware of how they are doing.  They tell me no one ever asks about them.

Acknowledging how difficult it is to be a caregiver is important.  When I turn to the caregiver and say,
“I see how hard this has been for you”, they often soften visibly and sigh or cry, releasing immediate tension. Caregiving can feel like endless worry or a state of helplessness.  In attending to the patient, caregivers often forget about themselves.  Many suffer in silence, with the idea that it is only the person with cancer needs support.

Not so.  We’ve all heard the airline speech about “putting your mask on first” if an accident occurs. You can’t help anyone else, no matter how much you love them, if your body (mind or spirit) gives out first. As hard as it is, when all you want to do is give, caregivers must also take care of themselves. It can supply you with the openness and energy to care for your loved one.  

Here are some thoughts on how to begin:
  • Acknowledge it all; how hard it is, how worried you are, how sore your neck is, how you hate cancerwhatever is actually happening for you.  It isn’t “negative” to do so – instead it provides relief to the body and gives you an idea of where you are at, and what help you might need to access.  Resentment is unacknowledged anger.  All feelings are normal and natural, and can be worked with. It can be useful to have a body-centered therapist as a guide.
  • Access help.  Most of us want to do it all ourselves, but there are times when some good practical support makes all the difference.  Ask friends (who aren’t sure how to help) for specific things: a kale salad, a nightly call to check in with you, a contribution to help pay for complementary health care (yes, you can set up an account at the OICC), a date to talk about something other than cancer.  Ask doctors and natural health practitioners what support is available in the community.  Most cancer helping agencies, the OICC included, welcome caregivers into their programs, be it yoga, exercise or nutrition classes.  Consider seeing a health care practitioner, like a naturopathic doctor, just for you.
  • Work directly with fear and anxiety.  While these feelings are natural when facing cancer, they can be overwhelming. There are both short term strategies and long term practices that can help balance your nervous system and help you feel more grounded and stable.
  • Experience something other than cancer.  After the initial shock, and decisions have been made  and treatment begun, there is often a steadier time.  Time when you could actually take a break from thinking exclusively about cancer and remedies.  Take a walk somewhere beautiful, read a magazine, watch a funny movie even if you don’t laugh out loud.
  • Do something physical.  We know how important exercise is, even during treatment, for your loved one with cancer, but it is equally important for the caregiver.  Movement helps on all levels, gives you a mental break and some feeling of being in your own body, in your own life.
  • Eat well.  Many caregivers forget about nutrition for themselves.  If making food feels like too much, perhaps those helpful friends and relatives could bring something along.  People don’t know how to help and don’t know how to ask you what you need, but are often relieved to receive direction.
  • Don’t make communication assumptions.  In sitting with caregivers I’m often struck by how they are withholding voicing their fears and concerns to their loved one, hoping to “stay positive”.  The last thing they want to do is upset the patient.  Yet I know in speaking to the one facing cancer that their hearts desire is to talk more honestly about fear, theirs and the caregivers.  They both seem to be making an assumption that to talk directly would be hard on the other.  So, perhaps check in with each other.  A gentle entry is often appreciated such as, “I’m feeling pretty scared – would you be willing to hear what is happening for me, or would you rather I spoke with someone else”? 
  • Have The Talk.  Yes, the one about death.  Even if it is not at all imminent, the reality is that we are not immortal. Cancer is a good opportunity to finally discuss what must be discussed; your wishes and how you would like to carried after your death.   At the OICC we give seminars entitled, “Talking about death won’t kill you”. While it can be difficult to begin, it can often be received as a measure of great caring and love when someone admits that they are afraid to lose you.  Timing is important.  Having a trusted friend or a counselor present for such conversations can be useful.

Cancer is a whirlwind, of appointments, treatments and emotions.  While you can’t control the wind, you can batten down the hatches.  You can take care of yourself and be present to the weather. 


Janice Falls said:

Excellent article and very much needed. Who supports the caregiver indeed! Thank you Anne for addressing this essential issue. And thanks to everyone at OICC for all that you do.

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