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Looking after yourself when you're caring for someone with cancer

August 8, 2017

Looking after yourself when you're caring for someone with cancer

Caring for a loved one who has cancer can have a big impact on your life - your relationships, career, finances, health and wellbeing can all be affected. While it can certainly be very rewarding, many carers also find the role physically and emotionally difficult at times.

You may feel as though you need to completely focus on the person you're caring for, but it's very important that you look after yourself too. This will help you avoid "burning out", and allow you to provide better quality of care for over a longer period of time - and help you maintain a sense of your own identity, too.

Keeping healthy

When you're busy looking after someone else, you can find it hard to find time to look after your own wellbeing. But it's important to stay healthy - here are some tips to help.

  • Eat healthy meals and snacks. If the person you care for has long appointments or is in hospital, you may need to plan ahead and bring healthy food from home.
  • Try to get enough sleep and rest. Tiredness and exhaustion often make everything seem harder.
  • Avoid using alcohol or cigarettes to relax. They may make you feel better for a short time, but they contribute to other problems.
  • Exercise for at least 15-30 minutes each day. This can increase your energy levels, help you sleep better and improve your mood. If you can leave the house, a walk, run or swim may help, while an exercise bike or a yoga/meditation mat can allow you to exercise at home.
  • See a doctor if you notice changes in your health such as fatigue, sleep problems, weight changes and depression.

Focus on your mental health

Caring for someone else can draining mentally as well as physically. It's common to feel overwhelmed and stressed about your new role of carer, while dealing with your feelings about your loved one's cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling sad or worried about the future.

Remember you can talk to a counsellor to help you process everything that's happening: ask your GP or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to get a referral to a counsellor.

You might also like to try the following ideas to take care of your mental health.

  • Make time for a break every day, even if it's just 10 minutes.
  • Plan longer breaks and respite care in advance, so you can arrange some time for yourself.
  • Ask family and friends to help out so you can have regular breaks. They can help lighten your load by doing extra household chores, picking kids up from school or activities, or helping assist the person with cancer while you take a well-earned rest (for example, driving them to/attending an appointment with them).
  • Let friends or family know that you want to chat about things other than caring.
  • Try not to hold in how you feel, especially if you're feeling angry or frustrated. Talk to friends, family members, or a counsellor. 
  • Stay involved in activities you enjoy. It's a good stress relief, and will give you something else to think and talk about aside from caring.
  • Keep a journal to write down what's been happening - it's a great way to release your worries or frustrations. Reading back through old entries can also give you some perspective, as you may notice that some days are better than others.
  • Be kind to yourself, and don't expect to be perfect. Sometimes you may feel like you could have handled a situation better, but remember that every day brings a fresh start. You're doing your best during a tough time, and that is good enough. 

Taking a break (respite care)

Respite care allows carers to have a break from their caring role. Respite can be given at home, in a respite care centre, or, in some cases, a hospital or hospice. It can be for just a few hours through to overnight or even a few days.

Some carers don't use respite care because they feel guilty or anxious about leaving the person they are caring for. But remember that by looking after yourself and having a break, you'll find yourself rejuvenated and able to care much more effectively.

You can access respite care for any reason - for example, if you'd like to:

  • take time out to access health care for yourself
  • visit friends or other family members
  • catch up on some sleep at home
  • run errands, such as grocery shopping
  • attend events, such as a school assembly or a wedding.

Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centres, located across Australia, provide free and confidential information on local carer support services and respite options - call 1800 052 222 during business hours. For emergency respite support outside business hours, call 1800 059 059.

You can read more in our publication "Caring for Someone With Cancer", which can be downloaded as a PDF or as an ebook. You can also call 13 11 20 for information and support, or to order a hard copy of the booklet.