Dos and Don’ts for Surviving the Holiday Season as a Cancer Caregiver

December 14, 2021

In ordinary times, caregivers undertake a daunting set of daily tasks. With the ongoing pandemic and upcoming holidays, it may seem like these complex stressors are piling up more than ever.

Being a caregiver looks different for everyone, says Abigale Hassel, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C, oncology social worker. Some people are fortunate to have the support of many helping hands, while others take on the brunt of responsibility by themselves.

When caregivers neglect their own basic needs, it may hinder their ability to properly care for their loved one. Experts at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township offer coordinated support services, information, and resources that may support caregivers’ needs and reduce stress.

“Holidays are supposed to be a time when family comes together and enjoys each other’s company; but if you’re facing it head on when a loved one has cancer, you may deal with safety concerns and anticipatory grief – or the ever-present fear of impending death – on top of the usual pressures,” explained Hassel. “The most important thing you can do is stay grounded in the present.”

In order to do this and navigate the holidays, it’s important to capitalize on healthy coping mechanisms. Hassel recommends the below “Dos” and “Don’ts” for both taking care of your loved one with cancer and taking care of yourself.

‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ for Your Loved One:

  • Do listen to their wishes. They will let you know what they need and want.
  • Don’t impose your will or preferences on them, assuming you know what’s best. For instance, if you don’t think they should go to a holiday gathering because of their health, consider and respect their decision to prioritize cherishing time with their family.
  • Do make the dynamic safe and open, so your loved one can ask for whatever they need.
  • Don’t create obstacles to their care.
  • Do be an advocate when needed.
  • Don’t assume they’ll speak up for themselves when at the doctor. Older people, particularly, tend to always think the doctor knows best; but sometimes you need to speak up, suggest a change, seek other options, or even stop treatment.

Caregivers experience grief similarly to their loved ones. They might feel survivor’s guilt – especially when they’re a spouse or parent of the person with cancer – or even anger. It’s not logical, but it’s all a natural part of the grieving process, says Hassel.

‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ for Your Well-Being:

  • Do accept your feelings. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to step away for a breather, do so. This is necessary for tension release.
  • Don’t judge your emotions or bottle them up. When you hold things in, it can increase your anxiety, impact you physically (i.e., stomach upset and high blood pressure), and keep you from doing what’s best.
  • Do prioritize self-care. Not in the means of pampering yourself but taking time – taking breaks throughout the day – to be physically active, eat right (and not skip meals), and do the little things you enjoy.
  • Don’t isolate yourself from others just because you have a lot on your plate.
  • Do stay connected with family and friends. Having someone to lean on, whether it’s through a phone call or lunch date, can make a world of difference.
  • Don’t try to handle it all alone. Ask for help. When you have a support system, you can delegate some tasks to other people.
  • Do consider finding professional help if you’re not able to reduce your stress on your own. Explore support groups and community resources; most opportunities are available virtually now and are easy to fit in anyone’s schedule.

Above all else, remember that life is made up of little moments, says Hassel. “Try to savor the joyful ones, which can and do happen amid a tragic situation. At your holiday, take in the sound of laughter and the smell of the food that’s cooking or baking. Your loved one is still here. Sometimes all you need to do is just be.”

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