Spouses and partners to cancer patients have a higher risk of illness. The stress and the increased demands in caring for a loved one may be too overwhelming. This is why self-care is so important. You need to care of yourself, for yourself.
To lose oneself while caring for another
This is the fourth blog post in a series on living with cancer that I'll be writing the coming months. The introduction and links to the first blog posts, can be found in the first one; To live with, after and next to cancer.
The fact that yoga and a routine of introspection, self-care, and exercise was well integrated in my life didn’t matter when my boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer. He and the cancer became center of attention and I neglected myself to support and care for him.
Luckily, he was smarter than I. He shoved me out the door to go running. He told me to leave the hospital and go to yoga when I wanted to stay with him. He said that he would be fine alone if I wanted to meditate, and that I would feel better if I did so. He was right. Of course, he was.
It is so easy to lose oneself when living next to cancer. When someone we love and hold so close is threatened by death or suffers greatly during treatment, how can we not? At the hospitals and in the health care system all focus is on the sick person. As loved ones we suffer too. We are scared, sad, tired, and overwhelmed too. But our needs are put aside, and we are often forgotten.
You become the Project leader
Research made by Katarina Sjövall at Lund University show that relatives to those diagnosed with cancer get sicker as well. Spouses and partners to cancer patients have a 25% higher risk of cardiac disease; joint- and muscle pain; mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety; and burn out. Exactly why is not firmly established but probably due to the psychological stress and the increased demands caring for the spouse.
Ola Ringdahl talks in his book Att stå bredvid cancer about the roles loved ones take on. It is easy to understand how and why we ourselves end up at the doctor’s office in need of care. When “The Cancer Project” starts you become the Project leader keeping track of doctors’ appointments; making sure information is not lost between different hospital wards; and acting as the Interpreter, the Translator, and the Extra memory. You are the Caretaker putting on band-aids, cleaning up vomit, and making sure the medications is taken at the right time.
When the sadness and anxiety become too great you are the Comforter, giving your partner, child, parent, or friend a hug and wipe away their tears. You are also the Informer, the one others turn to to know how the sick one is doing. And even if cancer puts pause on your lives, the world around continues to spin. That means that you also shoulder the tasks of the Everyday creator, maintaining some kind of normalcy with work and family.
Prioritize yourself / Self-care
You are also a just You. But You are often not allowed to take up space. Living next to cancer usually means that when You are in a desperate need of a break from all the roles, guilt kicks in. Taking time for yourself when cancer is raging in your loved one’s body is just selfish, right?
The guilt is a constant companion. I’ve lived with it, and from conversations with others living next to cancer, I know it is something almost everyone struggles hard with. A common comment in cancer communities is that they work so hard all the time, but they don’t know how they can keep it up. They are running out of energy. Deep down you KNOW that prioritizing yourself once in a while is important. You need to find ways to make yourself last. For your loved one’s sake, but mostly for your own. You know best which ways works best for you to recharge, but here are some tips:
Sara Hoy has written the book Yoga och vetenskap – därför funkar det. Science show us that yoga makes us more resilient to stress, decreases blood pressure and reduces the risk of cardiac disease; helps with depression; and reduces anxiety. See how that correlates to the illnesses I mentioned above that those living next to cancer are in higher risk of?
Based on her book Sara has created two versions of the same class – one slower and one faster – so that you can choose based on your energy level:
A video in English for the busy mind, with Sara Platt Finger:
Rest to restore and get an understanding on how to work with situations out of your control:
Be kind to yourself. You do so much. So much. Even if it feels like you’re doing nothing. Try this meditation for self-compassion and loving kindness:
Give yourself a short break and a few moments of breath, space, and movement. You will feel better afterwards:
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Reach out for support
It’s important to know that you are not alone. All the hard questions, the weird thoughts, and forbidden feelings have been asked, thought, and felt by thousands other. There are comfort and perspective to find. You need someone to share the emotional whirlwind of despair and hope and happiness and grief with.
Friends and family provide love and support that no outsider can. Reach out for arms that hug you and ears that listen, ask for help with errands and chores – everything that makes life easier for you. You don’t need to be strong alone.
A therapist provides an objective view and professional experience of untangling gnarly thoughts and feelings (and won’t judge you when you share that you are angry at your partner for getting cancer and ruining your life and future, or that you’re so tired you just wish everything would end.)
A community gets you. They live, or have lived, through the same as you do. The understanding and exchange of stories and experiences are truly helpful.
Under the words “No one should become sick from being a relative” Cancerkompisar (Cancer buddies) does a huge job of lifting the relatives cause into the light to prevent illness and giving hope, support, and help to those who help others. They both provide an online platform working as an open support group, and a service where you get matched with someone in a similar situation – you get a cancer buddy to share with and seek comfort from.
War On Cancer
The physical challenge is huge for a cancer patient. The mental and emotional challenge is at least as great. War On Cancer is a social media-app, a social network and community, where both cancer patient and loved ones have the opportunity to share their cancer experience and get in contact with others who actually understand. It creates belonging and community in a time of isolation and uncertainty.
War On Cancer's mission is to put focus on, and radically improve, the mental health of everyone affected by cancer. The first step is the digital social network that creates belonging and community in a time of isolation and uncertainty. You are reminded that you are never alone. Learn more about War On Cancer and download their app here!
Share your story, it will make a difference.
- Genom cancer – att älska kroppen för vad den klarar, interview in Swedish with yoga teacher and author Karin Björkegren Jones.
- Managing hardship through connection, by Eleonora Ramsby Herrera.
- Breathe life into your life - part 1, by Ulrica Norberg.