How to Practice Self-Care When Supporting Someone Who Has Breast Cancer

Caring for someone else starts with taking care of you

When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, it's natural to want to devote all your energy to caring for them. But as a caregiver, it's just as important to take care of yourself. Breast cancer treatment is often a marathon, not a sprint, and survivors need their caregivers to be at their best for the long haul. And you deserve support through this difficult time too.

Self-care is so important for caregivers that Rachel Cannady, strategic director of Cancer Caregiver Support at the American Cancer Society, has spent 17 years studying the psychosocial experience of family caregivers. (She and her team just published the Caregiver Resource Guide, which has an entire section on the subject.)

Here are some tips for staying mentally and physically healthy as a caregiver:

Prioritize your physical health
The intense and prolonged nature of distress associated with caregiving puts caregivers at risk for developing medical problems, says Allison J. Applebaum, a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping cancer patients and their caregivers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "It's important to take care of your body," says Applebaum. "Exercise, eat well, and – despite all the challenges – get enough sleep."

Applebaum also encourages caregivers to "take an honest look at your current coping strategies." Are you skipping exercise or relying on alcohol to ease your stress? The beginning of your caregiving journey is the best time to put in place strategies that will give you the energy and emotional health to weather the challenges ahead. 

"Remember, you must take care of yourself in order to give good care," advises Cannady. "Caregivers are [often] either not eating at all, or going through the drive-thru and picking up junk food. It's important to carve out time to do meal preparation and to work out, to make it intentional physical activity."

Stick to routines
Marc Silver, whose wife Marsha was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, says that practicing self-care and continuing to laugh are vital.

"I did three things: I kept working because my office was a respite. I made sure to keep exercising [because] going for a run was like running away from breast cancer and was very restorative. And I laughed as often as I could," says Silver, author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond.

Make an appointment with yourself
Applebaum advises caregivers to prioritize self-care – such as a half hour of running, yoga, or meditation – as if it were a medical appointment or work meeting.

"Integrate one self-care activity in every day, and on stressful days increase it to two or three. Do something just for you, even if it's something as simple as drinking hot chocolate and listening to some music," Applebaum says.

Recognize that you will be stressed too
Among the findings in Cannady's research is that survivors have high levels of depression and anxiety (including fear of recurrence), and that adult daughters of women with breast cancer can actually have a higher fear or recurrence than the survivors themselves.

"It's important for the caregiver to have a space to express emotions to a therapist, social worker, friends, or support group," Applebaum says.

"The husband of a cousin who'd gone through breast cancer was my private support group," says Silver. "He'd call regularly and ask how I was doing. It was great to have a confidant. Caregivers definitely feel better if they have someone they can share their own feelings with," says Silver.

Applebaum points out that stress levels can be even higher for caregivers once cancer treatment has ended. "Survivorship is when caregivers are at a particularly high risk for emotional distress. When patients are diagnosed, caregivers go into fight or flight mode. After they transition to survivorship, caregivers allow themselves to feel those very difficult emotions. It's a good time for survivors to ask the caregiver how they are. Caregivers are survivors too."

Research respite care
Volunteers to help take some of the burden off caregivers can be a great resource, particularly for those who feel guilty when they need to take time to tend to their own lives and families.

"We have a contacts center that can connect folks with local respite care resources 24/7," says Cannady. "Once caregivers experience how freeing it is to trust the respite resource, it makes all the difference, even if it's just for an hour to go grocery shopping. It really gives peace of mind."

American Cancer Society Cancer Helpline: (800)227-2345 (available 24/7 365 days a year)
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Family Caregiver Alliance, National Center on Caregiving
Family Caregiver Alliance, National Center on Caregiving: Taking Care of YOU: Self-Care for Family Caregivers