When your loved one is diagnosed, it can sometimes feel like you have to dedicate yourself wholly to taking care of them. Whether it’s because you’re worried about them or feel indebted to them, it’s easy to take on a hero complex and think that you must sacrifice your life and time to make sure that they are okay. While this is a novel thought, it’s not based in reality.
Yes, it’s important that you take care of the person you care about, but you must also take care of yourself. It might seem difficult, but if you don’t take care of yourself, no matter how good you may feel about helping them, that “good feeling” won’t last forever. Balancing your self-care and your care towards others will help both you and those you care about in the long run.
Keep in mind that the following information does not by any means replace professional advice. For more specific information, speak to your loved one’s physicians. If you or a loved one are considering harming themselves, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
How do I take care of my loved one?
While it might sometimes seem like there’s absolutely nothing you can do for them, the list of ways you can help your loved one is endless. By following these suggestions (as well as the suggestions of those around you), you will find that they will be very grateful. A little love goes a long way.
- Prepare meals for them—even if the fanciest meal you can make is a grilled cheese. Your loved one will appreciate that you put time and effort into cooking them something. If they are experiencing side effects from their respective cancer treatments, check out our guide to food-related treatment side effects and how to deal with them for helpful suggestions on what to make. In our recipes section, you will find various meals with the everyday cancer patient in mind.
- Do everyday chores for them. Your loved one might be stubborn and refuse to have you do it for them (especially if they love to clean), but if that’s the case, gently suggest that you begin to help them with these chores. Good examples are:
- Again, cooking
- Doing laundry
- Doing the dishes / unloading and loading the dishwasher
- Dusting around the house
- Doing yard work
- Cleaning the bathrooms
- Offering to go grocery shopping (if you can drive yourself)
- Taking out the trash
- If they are an older family member and you have younger siblings, watch over your siblings more. Offer to walk/drive them home from school or to extracurricular activities if that used to be your loved one’s responsibility. Even if you can’t drive, try to devote a little more of your time to your siblings. For example, if your loved one used to read to one of your siblings every night before bedtime, but is now too tired to, take it upon yourself to try and do the same thing.
- Offer to take them to any appointments, procedures, or any other commitments they have scheduled. This also ties into psychological care.
- If they have specific side effects of cancer treatment (or cancer in general) that they or their physician are concerned about, keep a close (but not stifling) eye on them. If they ever seem off or in pain, gently encourage them to consult their doctor—but if they are in extreme distress, call 9-1-1.
- If they have appetite loss or any other food-related treatment symptom, be sure to cater to their needs. For example, the American Cancer Society encourages caregivers to give a patient affected by appetite loss 6-8 small meals or snacks a day. Another example would be to serve mild-smelling foods to a patient who has grown nauseated by the smell of food.
- If your loved one has developed long-term confusion, offer to go to appointments and other commitments with them and be their “brain (memory) buddy.” Be patient if they don’t remember things and be vigilant if their confusion poses a risk to their safety.
- If they need to exercise but don’t want to, offer to exercise with them. Rarely are exercise routines for cancer patients any more than light jogging or walking. They will appreciate the company.
- If you can’t help them too much, talk to people that can. For example, connect with your neighbors and ask them if they can walk the family dog every other day. If you create a network of people that are willing to help, you’ll find that the workload will be a lot lighter.
- Make sure that your loved one is coming into minimal contact with people who are sick. Cancer treatment, as well as cancer itself, can lower a person’s immune system, so cancer patients have a higher risk of getting sicker.
- If your loved one is experiencing mild-to-moderate pain, run them a warm bath. Make sure that it’s warm, not hot. The water may help alleviate the pain or at least relax them.
This is perhaps the least-emphasized type of care, but oftentimes, it is the most important. Being there for your loved one may very well provide them with the support they need to go through their treatment and beyond.
- Gently suggest they talk about what is troubling them, if anything. Sometimes, cancer patients are too worried about scaring the people they care about to admit that they’re scared—and in some cases, they don’t want to admit it to themselves.
- However, don’t try to force your loved one to talk about things they aren’t comfortable with. For example, if you find that they grow quiet when speaking about their type of cancer or their future, don’t press.
- Listen to what they have to say. If they want to vent, let them vent. Odds are that they have a lot on their mind and nowhere to let it out. They will appreciate the relief that comes from it.
- Encourage them to meet with others with similar experiences. Nearly every hospital or treatment center has some kind of cancer support group. If your loved one does not want to go to a medical support group, reach out to your local church or community center to see if they have support groups. Speaking to others who are going through or have gone through the same experiences will help them feel like they are not alone.
- Go to their appointments and commitments with them. Company is the best therapy. If they are nervous about their first day of radiation or chemo, offer to join them. Having the presence of someone beside them, even if it’s just in the waiting room, will ease their worries.
- Don’t judge their feelings. Even if you yourself wouldn’t have those thoughts, remind yourself that you’re not the one that has cancer. As long as the thoughts aren’t unhealthy, let them speak freely.
- That being said, if the thoughts are unhealthy, be sure to either urge them to speak to a professional or contact the professional yourself. It’s natural to feel a little pessimistic following a diagnosis, but if your loved one is starting to seem suicidal or clinically depressed, don’t hesitate in letting someone else know—whether they be their primary care physician or an adult you trust. The American Cancer Society says that if someone has five or more of the following symptoms for two weeks or longer, or if the symptoms are severe enough to make life difficult for them, they should be evaluated for clinical depression:
- Persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness almost every day
- Loss of interest in everyday activities they once enjoyed
- Eating problems, including weight loss/gain, loss of appetite, or overeating
- Disrupted sleeping pattern (insomnia, early waking, or oversleeping)
- Persistent tiredness or loss of energy
- Restlessness or sluggishness, especially when noticed by others
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
- Trouble concentrating, remembering, or decision-making
- Thoughts of death/suicide
- Wide mood swings (i.e. from depression to agitation)
- Note: some physical symptoms of clinical depression can also stem from cancer treatment. If you think your loved one may be depressed, have them consult with their medical team to decide where these symptoms are coming from.
- Be there for your loved one in general. It might not seem like much, but simply being alongside them is enough to provide them with support. Hug them. Talk to them. Let them know that no matter what, you’ll be there for them. You don’t have to make a grand show of things for them to know that you care. Show them that you love them through everyday acts of love, like putting a good morning note on the bag they take to chemo or sitting on the couch with them after a long day.
How do I take care of myself?
This can be tricky. As teenagers and young adults, we are quite honestly the rulers of indifference—even when it’s feigned. We sometimes act like nothing bothers us, because admitting that we’re hurting makes us seem weak or hurts others. Most teenagers can attest to the fact that one of the most common pieces of advice they’ve gotten from friends is the ever-eloquent “suck it up.” But “sucking it up” isn’t going to help you go through something difficult. “Sucking it up” might seem like the right choice in the short-term, but the consequences of keeping your feelings to yourself and ignoring your own well being are much worse than what it’s worth. It’s important that you balance your self-care and the care you take towards others.
This is the most obvious part of self-care. However, sometimes, when you’re so preoccupied with helping someone else, you can forget to do the most basic things. Make sure that you know how to keep your physical well being in top shape.
- Keep up your hygiene. That means still showering regularly, brushing your hair/teeth, and continuing with every routine you usually do.
- Monitor your health. Many of us are guilty of hiding our ailments or sickness if someone else in the family is doing worse. Even if it embarrasses you to say so, still report how you’re feeling to someone—whether you have the sniffles or the flu. Having two sick people in the house will only make life more difficult for you and everyone else.
- This, of course, translates into your future. Having a family member with cancer does not mean that you will develop cancer yourself in the distant future, but it could mean that you may have a slightly higher risk of developing cancer than the rest of the population. Read the “My family member has cancer. What does that mean for me?” section for more information.
- Get enough sleep. It may be difficult to sleep with so many thoughts swirling in your head, but if you can, try to get some shut-eye. Sleep is crucial for developing minds and if you stray from it, you will feel the ramifications.
- Don’t stray from your healthy eating habits. You might feel a little less hungry during the first few weeks, which is fine, but make sure that you’re still keeping your body well-nourished. Nutrition is as important for you as it is for your loved one.
- Keep active. If you played a sport before your loved one’s diagnosis, don’t drop it “just because.” Physical activity does a lot more than just keep you in shape; it also pumps up your endorphins, the “feel-good” neurotransmitters in your brain, making you feel better both physically and psychologically. This doesn’t, of course, mean that you have to start running three miles at six a.m. every morning if you’ve never done that before, but even if your only daily workout is walking from the couch to the fridge (which most of us are guilty of), don’t give that up.
- Don’t pick up risky behaviors. If you’re in distress about your loved one’s condition, falling back onto alcohol or other drugs (physical or psychological in nature) might seem like a logical solution, but in reality, it’ll only make that distress worse. It’s not worth it to try something risky just to feel better for a short period of time.
- Don’t bottle up your emotions. It might seem tempting, but keeping things to yourself will only make them worse. Vent to people. Talk to close friends about what’s bothering you. You’ll find that the more you talk about it, the better you’ll feel.
- Keep yourself socially engaged. Social isolation is easy to achieve when you’re going through something traumatic, but it’s extremely difficult to get out of—and to top it off, it makes you feel worse. Continue to hang out with friends and go to social events. Don’t make your social life a burden on your loved ones, but don’t keep yourself locked up to make it easier on them, either.
- Unfortunately, a lot of people who have not been affected by cancer don’t understand the full extent of what it feels like. If you don’t feel like other people understand how you’re feeling, seek out a support group! These can come in the shape of a local support group, a group of friends, or even a (safe) forum online. The important thing is that you have a group of people that understand and support you every step of the way.
- Don’t think that no one cares if your friends aren’t reacting the way you want them to. Oftentimes, they just don’t know how to deal with the information. Don’t hate your friends because they’re seemingly indifferent or ask awkward questions. They don’t mean to hurt your feelings, they probably just have never experienced something like this before.
- Remember that it’s not your fault that your loved one is sick. Cancer isn’t something that can be wished upon someone or even given in general. While it might seem like a silly thought, it’s important to remember. That being said, don’t feel guilty that your loved one is sick. You have absolutely nothing to do with any of this.
- Again, don’t fall back onto risky behaviors. Drug use, for example, might seem like a good way to feel better in the short term, but after a while, it only makes you feel worse. In all honestly, any addictions—whether they start as a coping method or not—end up making you feel worse, because whenever you aren’t satisfying that need, all you feel is a desperate desire to reach that “high” (physical or psychological) again.
- Know that many people are willing to help you. These people can be anyone from a non-profit organization volunteer to a school counselor, or even a close family friend. They are here to help you and want to make sure that even though this may be hard, you’ll make it through it okay.
- Measure your thoughts on a three-level gauge: red meaning unhealthy, yellow meaning not normal, and green meaning normal. For example, feeling like it’s “not fair” that your loved one is sick falls in the green/yellow sector, while wanting to harm yourself because you’re tired of seeing them suffer falls in the deep red. If your thoughts start to hover more in the deep yellow and red area, you should think about either talking to someone or seeking out professional health.
- If your thoughts do start to gravitate towards the red section of the gauge, don’t keep it inside because you feel like you’re just “looking for attention.” If you were looking for attention, you wouldn’t be hiding it from everyone else. Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Others can tell you that hiding how you feel doesn’t make it go away, it makes it worse. Talk to an adult you trust or a professional.
“When should I seek out help?”
The National Cancer Institute says that it’s normal to feel blue sometimes, but once it starts to verge into dangerous territory (i.e. the red), it’s important to seek out help. They encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:
- Feeling hopeless and helpless, or thinking that life is meaningless?
- Losing interest in spending time with others or doing activities that you used to enjoy?
- Crying more than usual?
- Becoming increasingly irritated by everyone and everything?
- Being upset or angry often?
- Thinking of hurting yourself?
- Eating a lot more or less than usual?
- Using drugs, alcohol, or other “numbing” products to make you feel better?
- Sleeping a lot more or less than usual?
- Feeling tired all of the time?
If you answered yes to a few or a lot of these questions, you should seek out professional help.
We know it’s hard to admit that there’s something going on. When you’re depressed or even just sad, you can feel like you don’t want to take attention from your loved one, or even that you don’t deserve to take that attention away. That is wrong. You are worth just as much as your loved one, and you deserve to be heard. Don’t be afraid to speak out and protect your mental health. Find someone you trust and tell them what is going on inside your head. Be honest. It’s hard, and it can be mortifying at times, but in the end, you’ll be glad that you spoke out to protect yourself.
If you think you may be a danger to yourself, the following resources are available at your disposal. Keep in mind that these resources, and this page in general, are not by any means meant to replace medical help, but they will help you on the road to getting better.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 [24 hours]
Lifeline Crisis Chat [NSPL Online Chat]
IMAlive [Online Chat]
“I want to learn more about my loved one’s condition. Who should I talk to?”
There is an endless list of resources you can contact for more information about cancer, cancer treatments, and more. Below are just a few given by the National Cancer Institute.
National Cancer Institute
- www.cancer.gov and www.cancer.gov/espanol
- www.cancer.gov/livehelp [online chat]
- 1-800-4-CANCER [1-800-422-6237]
American Cancer Society
Cancer Support Community
- National Cancer Institute. When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens. Bethesda: National Cancer Institute, 2012. Print.