An Important Part of Cancer Caregiving That’s Often Overlooked and How to Prioritize It

Marika Humphreys is a life coach who coaches people who have a partner with cancer. She is certified by The Life Coach School. Marika was a caregiver to her late husband for 5 years as he experienced multiple cancers. Coaching has had a profound impact on Marika’s life. Through coaching, she discovered her own strength and resilience, and now she helps her clients do the same. You can find her on Facebook.

When your loved one has cancer, you spend a lot of time taking care of them in addition to your other responsibilities, like work, parenting, and household chores. Over time, it can start to take its toll on your well-being. Caregivers often know that they should be taking better care of themselves, but a lot of caregivers find it difficult to put their own health needs first. Or, they may feel like they just can’t seem to find the time.

This is something I’ve experienced personally. My husband had cancer for 5 years. From the beginning, I wanted to make sure he never felt alone and that we were in it together. But after a couple of years of being his primary emotional support, helping to make difficult care decisions, and supporting him during periods when he needed extra help—all while also working full time and parenting—I was tired.

For both my husband and me, cancer was a constant shadow over our lives. It added more stress in our relationship, and it completely changed how we lived. I struggled to cope with the constant presence of it. I also felt stuck at a job I no longer loved. I felt like I wasn’t in charge of my own life anymore. Still, none of my problems seemed as important as what my husband was dealing with.

Then, one day, I realized I had been putting my husband’s pain above my own. I was ignoring my own needs and not taking care of myself. It was taking a toll. It occurred to me that my struggle, while certainly very different from my husband’s, was still my struggle, and it was important to me. When I actually took a step back and was objective, I could see that no one person’s pain is more important than another’s. It may be different, or more urgent, but it’s not more important. That distinction changed everything for me. I realized we all have our own struggles, and mine deserved my attention.

That shift in mindset was huge for me. I started to pay attention to what I was struggling with and what I needed for my own health. I started getting the support I needed and making the time to take care of myself. I sought out a life coach, and from her, I started learning how to manage my negative thinking. I began journaling daily so I could dump all my worries and fears onto paper, so they didn’t continue to swim around in my head. I incorporated more exercise into my life by setting a minimum baseline for the things I could do in a certain amount of time. I wasn’t always perfect at it, but I made taking care of myself a much higher priority in my life.

Why caregivers struggle with taking care of themselves

At the core of everything we do or don’t do is our beliefs. I learned that in order to get to the root of why I was continually foregoing my own needs as a caregiver, I had to understand what I currently believed about the importance of self-care. By understanding these beliefs, I could learn what was preventing me from doing what I knew I should: take care of myself. For me, if I wasn’t taking care of myself, then deep down, I realized it was because I didn’t believe it was important or that I was important. For some people, they may believe that taking time for themselves means they aren’t being a good caregiver.

So, what do you currently believe about the importance of self-care? One exercise that has worked for me is taking out a piece of paper and answering the question below. In your response to the question, write as many reasons as you can think of. Don’t hold back.

What are the reasons I don’t take care of myself in the way I’d like to?

Now, take a look at what you wrote. Look at all the reasons you gave for not taking care of yourself. Below are some common beliefs that caregivers often have about self-care. If your thoughts about self-care are similar to any of the ones listed below, then the real reason why you aren’t doing it is that deep down, you might not believe self-care is important.

The problem is, if you continue believing that your own self-care is not important, or that you don’t have time, or that there is too much to do, you will continue to not take care of yourself. I’ve learned this firsthand. So, how do you change this belief that feels so true?

The first step is to explore how not changing these beliefs will impact your life. If you continue to neglect your own health and care, what will happen in a month’s time? What about 6 months? Where will you be a year from now if nothing changes? What will your physical health be like? Your mental and emotional state? Will you have the strength and energy to care for others? I’ve found it helpful to really look at my life and see how it would impact me if I continued not caring for myself in the way I knew I should. Take an honest look at your future and what it will look like if you don’t change now.

Changing your perspective on self-care

I like to look at the importance of self-care from 2 perspectives: the present you and the future you.

First, let’s talk about how self-care is important for the present you. We all know that energy is not an unlimited resource. Like gas in a car, it runs out and needs to be refilled. The mental, emotional, and physical energy required to be a caregiver also runs out. So, if you aren’t taking care of yourself and are running on sheer discipline, you will likely burn out.

Also, at the foundation of all your relationships with other people, including the person you are caring for, is your relationship with yourself. When you don’t take care of your own needs, and therefore are not treating yourself with love, you may find yourself struggling to love and take care of others. You may start to feel resentful for “having” to take care of them. Caregiving then becomes a chore and not a choice. I’ve learned that this is what happens when we consistently forego our own needs. 

Now, let’s take a look at the future you. When you don’t take care of your own health needs, that also impacts the person you will be in the future. Everything we do today—all the decisions we make and actions we take—create who we become in the future. So, if you deny yourself self-care consistently today, your future self will likely be more burnt out, have less energy, and likely struggle with their own health problems. Your future self may be resentful because they put everyone’s needs before their own. Your future self may also look back and view this time as drudgery and fail to see the beautiful moments because you were simply too tired. Who you become in the future will be shaped by how you take care of yourself now.

So, I’ve learned that as caregivers, we have a choice. Your future self will either be stronger and more resilient after this journey, or you will be burnt out and depleted. You decide.

How caregivers can prioritize self-care

For me, changing my belief around self-care and realizing that my needs were important was the critical component that allowed me to then take the steps to get the mental and emotional support I needed as a cancer caregiver. Changing yours may do the same for you.

So, what’s your new belief? Here are some ideas:

  • My needs are just as important as my loved one’s.

  • I value my relationship with myself.

  • I’m committed to caring for both myself and my loved one.

  • No one can take care of me but me.

  • Self-care is how I treat myself with love.

The amazing thing is, once I started to take care of my own needs, I actually became a better caregiver to my husband. I was able to be calmer and more loving, and I had more energy. I was able to be more present. Honestly, while it didn’t “fix” everything, taking time for myself meant I was able to show up for my husband the way I really wanted to. I felt back in control again.

During my time as a caregiver, I learned that how you value your own self-care and what you believe about its importance can be a key factor in doing what you know you need to do. It really is that simple. If you want to continue to care for your loved one over the coming months and possibly years ahead, then it’s your mindset that needs to shift in order to get started on the habit of self-care. After all, if you don’t take care of yourself, who will?

Self-care for caregivers is not a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity.

The author has no relevant relationships to disclose.

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