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5 ways cancer caregivers can avoid burnout

When a loved one is fighting cancer, it’s easy to overlook the load caregivers often face. Not only do they shoulder the responsibility of caring for the patient (sometimes around the clock), they also juggle a combination of kids, work, and — in some cases — aging parents.

In a recent national online survey, Cancer Treatment Centers of America asked caregivers from across the country for their best advice about how to cope, reduce stress, and stay sane. Here are five ways cancer caregivers can avoid burn out based on tips from those who have fought, or are still fighting, the cancer battle with their loved one.

Put on your own oxygen mask before you help others with theirs.

First and foremost, take care of yourself. That starts with getting plenty of rest and eating right. Set aside time for yourself and spend it however you want—not how someone else thinks you should. It’s normal to feel helpless at times. You may be laughing one minute and crying the next. Go for a run. Turn up the music. Scream until you can’t scream anymore. Schedule time for your favorite yoga class. Take a bath. Read a good book. Go to church. Dig in the garden. Spend an evening out with friends. Wander into a café and enjoy a cup of coffee at your own speed.

Being a caregiver can be exhausting. Do whatever feels right for you when it comes to recharging your batteries and don’t feel guilty. What’s good for you is good for the patient, your family and, your work/career.

Stop being so polite. Ask for help.

No one is coming to your rescue if they don’t know you need help. Asking for help doesn’t indicate a lack of love or concern for the patient. It’s just the opposite: It shows you care enough to realize you can’t do it all alone and you want the best for the patient. “Of all the lessons I’ve learned in this year of our ‘Fourth Tour of Duty,’ I needed to learn to ask for and receive help,” said one respondent.

Another respondent offered this piece of wisdom: “Actively employ the most positive, least dramatic friends. Make it easy for them. Be clear about what exactly can be done to help, when and how.”

Let things slide.

Be patient with yourself and your loved one. Give yourself permission to let some things in your life slide and replace them with joyous small moments: A kiss on the forehead. A whisper of love. A long hug. A good cry. Make your time together a priority. It’s the little things in life that usually lead to the greatest joys.

Ask questions and keep it real.

“I would have liked to know things to watch for and what to expect…to be able to accept what was to come and not just see what I wanted to see,” said one caregiver.

While it’s important to listen to the patient and let them make as many decisions as possible, get yourself comfortable with knowing how to take control when needed. Keep a running list of questions so you are armed with good information. You are the patient’s ears. That can be important when it’s time to make treatment decisions. Another caregiver shared this advice for navigating difficult conversations: “I tried to always present the pro’s and con’s of any issue so that my sister could make an informed, educated decision for her treatment. I led the conversation at times into waters that may not have been comfortable but were necessary to navigate.”

Connect with other caregivers who know what you’re going through.

Caregiving can be as isolating as it is emotionally draining. There is no school for learning how to cope with the responsibilities and stress. Join a cancer support group to share your thoughts and feelings in a safe environment, and to learn from other people who can immediately relate to your situation. If a support group isn’t your speed, find other ways to get together with survivors. Check with your church, MeetUp.org, local university or do a Google search. Survivors need survivors. You’ll find comfort among people who understand your position—they’re the only ones who truly understand. Make the effort. It will pay off.

For more information about Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a national network of hospitals, visit www.cancerfighter.com.