Taking care of a cancer patient is one of the hardest jobs anyone can do. You’re asked to manage medications, set up and get your loved one to appointments, communicate with the health care team, make meals, be the patient’s main emotional support…The list goes on and on.
That leaves very little time for you.
It’s important to make time, though. Even though your loved one is sick, your well-being still matters. Pushing yourself too hard can actually make caregiving harder. If you break down, your work as a caregiver will suffer.
Here are some tips for taking care of yourself as a caregiver:
Eat right and exercise. This is basic. Maintaining a healthy diet will give you the energy you need and help keep you from getting sick. Exercise will keep your body strong and relieve stress.
Set up a support network. Friends and family want to help, but they may not know how. Tell them what you need. Use the web to coordinate support. Sites like Lotsa Helping Hands and CaringBridge have calendars that let friends sign up to bring you meals, pick up kids or dry cleaning, etc.
These sites will also let you post updates on your loved one’s condition. You can use these to let friends and family know what’s happening without making multiple phone calls or sending out dozens of emails.
Go to a support group. MD Anderson has many resources for caregivers, including several support groups that allow you to discuss your experiences with other people who are dealing with the same problems. If you try one that doesn’t feel like a good fit, try another one.
Speak with a counselor. Your insurance plan may cover the cost of seeing a therapist. MD Anderson social workers also provide counseling services to caregivers at no cost.
Talk to someone who’s been there. Many caregivers want to speak with someone who’s dealt with the same problems. MD Anderson’s myCancerConnection program matches current caregivers with past caregivers who can give insight, advice and encouragement.
As a cancer caregiver, you’ve probably been told it’s important to take care of your own physical and mental health, too. But sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially when you’re here at MD Anderson focusing on your loved one.
That’s why we’ve made a list of ways that you can look after your own health while you’re here at MD Anderson, whether you’re waiting on appointments or visiting a loved one.
Walk the skybridge
It can be hard to find time to exercise when you’re caring for others. But exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and lowering your cancer risk. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week to lower your cancer risk.
Fortunately, you can get plenty of exercise by walking outside MD Anderson, weather permitting, or across our nearly quarter-mile-long skybridge. Walking can also improve your mental outlook, help alleviate depression and improve your self-esteem.
Relax in our gardens
Interacting with nature can help raise people’s spirits and put them at ease. That’s why MD Anderson has six different parks, gardens or green spaces that are specially designed to promote healing. Try taking time to admire the beauty of the Tom Jean Moore Rose Garden or listen to the peaceful sounds of the Dorothy Hudson Garden and LeRoy Melcher Jr. Memorial Fountain. Outside of Mays Clinic, you can also walk through The Prairie and see grasses native to Texas or stop to smell the herbs growing in our Healthy Living Garden.
Take a class
We know that caring for others can cause stress and anxiety that can take its toll on your health. That’s why our Integrative Medicine Center offers yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and even healthy cooking classes for our patients and their caregivers. The center offers therapies that can reduce stress, an important part of your lowering your cancer risk. To learn more about the Integrative Medicine Center, talk to your loved one’s MD Anderson doctor, call 1-877-684-5568, or just stop by. It’s located east of The Aquarium entrance in the Main Building, Room R1.2000.
Visit The Learning Center
Sometimes sorting through health information – whether it’s for you or your loved one – can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know who or what websites you can trust. Our Learning Center staff can help. Not only can they help you find the best books and other resources on cancer topics, ranging from different diseases to nutrition and stress management; they’ve also created a list of recommended resources.
Stop into one of our three The Learning Center locations:
Theodore N. Law Learning Center
Main Building, Floor 4, near Elevator A, R4.1100
Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Levit Family Learning Center
Mays Clinic, Floor 2, near The Tree Sculpture, ACB2.1120
Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Holden Foundation Learning Center
Jesse H. Jones Rotary House, Floor 1, RH1.103
Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun., 1:30-8:30 p.m.
Get your cancer screening exams
When you’re caring for a loved one, you may be more likely to put off routine checkups and doctor’s appointments for yourself. The good news is you don’t have to leave MD Anderson to get the cancer screening exams you need. These are medical tests done when you’re healthy, with no signs of illness. They help find cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat.
You may need certain screenings based on your age or other health factors. You can take advantage of these screening services at our Cancer Prevention Center:
- Breast cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Skin cancer
- Lung cancer (for those at increased risk)
You can request an appointment at MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center by calling 1-877-632-6789. You don’t need a doctor’s referral to make an appointment.
Don’t put off your own health
It may seem hard to find time to take care of your own health, but remember: caring for yourself can help you better care for your loved ones. So next time you’re at MD Anderson, be sure to work some self-care into your visit. After all, we consider caregivers to be cancer survivors, too.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Burnout is the combination of exhaustion, detachment and cynicism that can sometimes develop when we’re faced with unrelieved stress over a long period of time.
People usually talk about burnout in the workplace, but everyday factors can contribute to it, too. That includes ongoing financial struggles and chronic tension in personal relationships – and now living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Throw in a cancer diagnosis and some level of burnout is almost inevitable – whether you’re a patient or a caregiver.
So, how do you prevent burnout if you haven’t reached that point yet? And how can you find some relief if you’re already burned out? Here’s a three-step guide to get you started.
1. Recognize signs of burnout
There are many degrees of burnout, and they look different for everybody. Some people don’t even realize they’re burned out until they’re right in the thick of it. So, the first step is to recognize that it’s occurring, and put a word to it so you can start taking steps to reverse it.
Burnout may appear in physical, mental or emotional ways. But one of its hallmarks is a feeling of just being “over it.” You might not care as much about things as you used to, or you may just want a particular thing or situation to be done and over with. It’s actually similar to the concept of “senioritis,” which affects some people during their final semester of schooling.
Other signs of burnout can include:
- EMOTIONAL: Feeling angry, anxious, depressed, resentful or stressed; avoiding or dreading certain tasks, people or situations
- MENTAL: Having difficulty concentrating or finishing projects
- PHYSICAL: Headaches, or an overall feeling of tension in your body
2. Normalize burnout
There’s no doubt that this past year has set the stage for widespread burnout. The combination of financial hardship, social isolation and resource depletion has hit many people very hard.
So, try to be gentle with yourself if you’re feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, too. Experiencing burnout doesn’t make you a bad person — it just makes you human.
3. Reverse feelings of burnout
Everybody’s situation is different, so there’s not going to be any one-size-fits-all fix. But think about the resources you have available, and come up with an action plan that works for you. Consider using SMART goals. Here are some things to try:
- Improve your sleep habits: Sleep deprivation can contribute significantly to burnout. Getting enough sleep can play a huge role in counteracting that. Use these tips to help you sleep better, and aim for 7-9 hours a night.
- Find emotional outlets: Schedule regular opportunities to talk to someone else about your problems. It could be a friend, a loved one, a therapist, a spiritual advisor, or a support group. Just knowing you’re not the only one who’s struggling can sometimes provide much-needed encouragement.
- Limit negativity in your life: Some people say that “misery loves company.” But I say, “Misery loves miserable company.” It’s good and healthy to get your feelings out. But surrounding yourself with people who vent constantly is probably not going to be very helpful.
- Clean off your plate: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when your to-do list is growing faster than you can scratch things off of it. But take a few minutes to examine it critically every now and then. Which deadlines are artificial or arbitrary? And how much of the pressure to get them done is self-imposed? Is there anything that can wait a few more days, be delegated to someone else, or even be removed entirely? Clean off your plate as much as possible to give yourself some breathing room.
- Feed your soul with mental escapes: Give yourself a mental vacation by thinking about the things you were passionate about in the Before Times. Read a book, watch a funny movie or comedy routine, or visit an art gallery online. Do as many of those things as you can to help yourself reset.
- Try a change of scenery: Identify activities that can physically remove you from the source of your burnout, even if it’s only for five minutes a day. Then, do them. Grab a cup of coffee from a kiosk, take a walk in the park, or go birdwatching in your neighborhood to decompress. Whether you’re a patient or a caregiver, getting out of the cancer world even for a single day can make a huge difference in your morale.
- Try small indulgences: Self-care doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive to be effective. So, trade pedicures with your teenager, ask your spouse to trade massages, or take a bubble bath alone by candlelight.
- Get some exercise: Recruit a friend to go walking or biking with you, or open the windows and take virtual workout classes. Exercise releases endorphins, which reduces stress and helps you feel better naturally.
- Schedule guided relaxation: Set aside some time each week to practice yoga, meditation or whatever mindfulness method helps you unplug and shed stress.
- Watch your cravings: When people are stressed, they tend to crave things that aren’t very helpful, like excess carbs, sweets or fatty foods. They also tend to drink alcohol and smoke more. In the moment, these behaviors may seem like they’re helpful, but in the long run, they’re really not. Recognize these cravings and, when you notice them, reach for a piece of fruit, go for a walk, or phone a friend instead.
- Engage in positive self-talk: Many people have a critical voice in their head that makes them feel bad about certain things. So, when you notice your inner-monologue taking this route, interrupt it and contradict it with more positive messages like, “Good enough is good enough. It doesn’t all have to be perfect. Even Bs still get degrees. You don’t have to be the best friend to everybody.”
The most important thing to remember about burnout is that you don’t have to face it alone. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns. MD Anderson patients and caregivers can also ask for a referral to one of our social work counselors or psychiatrists. The one thing we don’t want people to do is stop their cancer treatments due to burnout, so notify your care team if you’re struggling.
And, if you or someone you know is in danger of hurting themselves, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255 immediately. Counselors are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and offer free and confidential support.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Due to our response to COVID-19, all blood donations at MD Anderson
Blood Donor Center locations are being held by appointment only.