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Q&A: Why Caregivers Need to Take Care

CancerWise - September 2007

Caregivers often are so busy caring for cancer patients they have little time for their own needs. This can lead to a number of physical and emotional problems, endangering caregivers' health and quality of life.

Guadalupe Palos, R.N., Dr.P.H., an assistant professor in M. D. Anderson's Department of Symptom Research, is investigating the special needs and challenges of caregivers of patients with advanced lung or breast cancers.

Drawing from her studies, Palos, also a licensed social worker, answers questions about the pitfalls and rewards of caregiving and what can be done to make the experience easier.

What are some positive aspects of caregiving?

A lot of caregivers see taking care of a loved one as a rewarding experience. They feel they're giving back or doing something good for someone. Most of them say they don't see what they're doing as anything exceptional. Many also say it helps them better understand life and makes them stronger.

What are some of the challenges caregivers face?

In our research, patients report more physical symptoms, whereas caregivers face more emotional issues. But caregiving can affect the caregiver both physically and psychologically.

In the emotional sense, caregiving can:

  • Exhaust caregivers
  • Strain the relationship
  • Cause depression and sadness
  • Cause anxiety and worry
  • Make the caregiver feel angry or resentful

Physically, caregiving can cause:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances and sleep deprivation
  • Health problems

What are some of the emotional issues?

Juggling caregiving responsibilities with other roles in life, such as family, house and job, often can seem overwhelming.

Many caregivers are not prepared for the way their roles and responsibilities change during the course of the patient's disease. Often they don't realize what caregiving will entail. When the person is diagnosed, they are right there. But as treatment goes on, possibly long-term, and more and different things are expected of them, it can be stressful to adapt.

People seem to be especially vulnerable to emotional concerns during the holidays. More emotions, particularly sadness, surface when they remember old times. Sometimes people resent the obligation they feel and how it has changed their lives.

How can caregivers take care of themselves?

They need to focus on their emotional and physical needs.

Emotionally – Caregivers must find ways to carve out downtime for themselves. This is sometimes difficult because they feel guilty or have so many responsibilities, but it is crucial.

Some patients tell us it helps to focus on the good. Many find spiritual practices helpful.

Physically – Caregivers need to take care of their health. They should watch their blood pressure and any chronic problems they might have, and get annual check-ups.

When is caregiving too much to handle?

Caregivers should be alert to physical and emotional changes that signal they should take a break or seek help.

Signs include:

  • Mood swings (increased sadness, crying or anger)
  • Sleep problems
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (extreme or ongoing)

How can caregivers maintain their quality of life?

Caregivers need to know it's OK to take care of themselves. They should not feel guilty about taking a break. When they return, they will feel healthier and be able to cope better.

During the cycle of care, patients often hit plateaus. These times may be opportunities for the caregiver to back off a little and spend time on hobbies or enjoyable activities.

We always encourage caregivers to check out support groups in their communities or at the hospital where the patient is being treated. There are also a number of online communities.

How can people help a friend who is a caregiver?

Caregivers may decline your assistance at first because they don't want to trouble you.

To help caregivers:

  • Don't ask if you can fix a meal: Cook a dish and deliver it
  • Offer to give the caregiver a break for an hour
  • Run errands to the pharmacy, grocery, post office, etc.
  • Offer to take the patient to appointments

For more information about how to participate in Palos' caregiver studies, call askMDAnderson at 1-877-632-6789.


© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center