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Cancer Caregivers: Taking Care of Yourself Too

December 29, 2020

If you’ve ever known someone with cancer – whether it be a close friend, family member, or even yourself – there’s a good chance you’ve also known a cancer caregiver.

Being a cancer caregiver is like being a co-survivor, says Dr. Ana María Lopez, Professor, Vice Chair of Medical Oncology, and Chief of Cancer Services at Jefferson Health – New Jersey and the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.

On the surface, a caregiver may be tasked with scheduling and getting patients to appointments on time; making sure medications are taken appropriately; making sure patients eat, drink, and sleep a healthy amount; and helping with household chores.

However, the reality is that caregivers are responsible for much more, explains Margaret (Peg) Mackiewicz, BSN, RN, CPN, Clinical Nurse Manager of Medical Oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township.

When the “C” word – cancer – is mentioned, many patients, understandably, zone out or get distracted. The caregiver often acts as an integral extra set of eyes and ears to catch important instructions and information, as well as advocate for the patient, adds DeAnnette Stanton-Cross, BAS, OPN-CG, Practice Manager of the Cancer Center.

“Caregivers help make sure all physical comfort measures are met, but they’re often also a much-needed emotional support system. They have an obligation to make sure their loved one stays motivated – wakes up in the morning,” said Peg. “Caregivers sacrifice their way of life, and they do so wholeheartedly.”

Because so much time and effort are poured into caregiving, it can take a significant toll on the well-being of the caregiver, even though they aren’t the ones who are sick. Numerous studies have shown that there is a reciprocal relationship, among caregiver and patient, with the distress and trauma experienced during treatment.

“We always encourage caregivers to take care of themselves too,” continued Peg. “If they aren’t well, they can’t help the patient be well.”

If this all sounds familiar, because you, yourself, are a caregiver, you may try the following to manage your well-being:

  • Step away and compose yourself when upset.
  • Create barriers and set personal time aside, even if it’s only for a short period, to still do things you enjoy and maintain other relationships.
  • Pay attention to and recognize the signs of stress – or any mental or physical illness – and act on them when necessary.
  • Research and explore options for work leave, such as FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), as well as forms of financial assistance and respite care (temporary relief for primary caregivers).  
  • Most of all, be patient and kind with yourself.

Education and support are key to coping. At the Cancer Center, caregivers are welcome to join along in patients’ cancer classes, held after diagnosis – now offered virtually – and participate in any support groups or the Center for Hope & Healing activities, such well-being yoga.

From the moment you walk through the door, the entire Cancer Center has a culture and atmosphere of healing, Dr. López adds. Not only is the building filled with bright lights, soothing colors, and views/images of nature, but it is also filled with incredibly caring and attentive staff.

“Whenever any of us feel something is ‘off’ with a patient – or even a colleague – we will say something,” said DeAnnette. After all, she, Peg, and Dr. Lopez, as healthcare professionals, are all caregivers themselves.

Keeping a positive mindset in a cancer care environment is a must, but isn’t as difficult as one might think it is, explains Peg. “It’s not all ‘doom and gloom.’ Even on days when we’re taking care of a dying patient, it is an absolute privilege to walk them through their last moments in life.”

DeAnnette seconds this, saying that there are brief moments of sadness, but they’re often overcome by the love and support of their close-knit team members.

“We’ve considered ourselves a family here, from day one – always there for one another,” continued Peg. “We’re very happy doing what we do, and this shows in our care for our patients – our #1 priority.”

Whether you’re a patient, caregiver, or employee at the Cancer Center, don’t hesitate to mention when you feel your well-being is falling by the wayside. Help is always just around the corner.

For a full listing of Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center support groups and events, click HERE. For additional caregiving resources, offered by the American Cancer Society, click HERE.