Little can prepare you for the moment a cancer diagnosis smashes its way into your life. For me, it happened this past December when my young, vibrant mother was rushed to the ER with severe internal hemorrhaging. Hours later, the diagnosis: Stage IV metastatic kidney cancer.
Cancer became priority (and public enemy) number one. Christmas, New Year’s, Easter ... the future all meant something completely different, and so did my role as a daughter.
My husband, kids and I are close with my parents. In fact, we share a home with them, so there was no doubt I’d be heavily involved in my mother’s care. What I wasn’t prepared for was that in supporting her emotionally and physically, I’d have to consciously develop new habits to take care of myself, too. These six have been the most helpful.
1. Cherish the moment.
No matter what illness has brought you to this point, it’s brought you here together. It’s not a glamorous bonding, but you're sharing this experience side by side. Your togetherness is a tremendous blessing.
For me, the simplest things, like brushing my mom’s hair after surgery, rubbing her hands, even helping her to the washroom became tender, precious bits of time. They connected us, deeply. Shifting my perspective from “just doing” small tasks to enjoying and valuing every second has been a gift.
2. Nourish your body.
Roger Williams said, “Health begins with healthy food,” and that’s the best place to start. You can’t give your best if your body’s running on empty, so take a moment every day to plan.
Time can be tight when you’re integral to your loved ones’ basic needs, so prepare healthy meals daily, all at once, in the morning to keep things easy and efficient for yourself later. Bust out your juicer for highly charged energy in a glass. Use your blender to whip up enough green smoothie deliciousness to last a full day. Even better: share with your loved one so they can refuel too.
The healer of all healers, refresher of all refreshers, and a must for the patient and for you. When my mother was in pain, deep, peaceful rest was hard to come by. My sleeping when she did allowed us both to catch a few winks, even if they were few and far between. When sleep is at a premium, regardless of how much laundry there is or how many dishes are piled up in the sink, resist the urge to use the time when the patient is asleep to catch up on chores. Get your zzz’s ... the “to-do’s” will wait.
4. Seek out support for yourself.
From a friend, a group, your community’s social resources or online. It can be someone you've known forever, or you may need to seek out new people who are familiar with or can relate to the specific circumstance, illness or feelings you are dealing with. You shouldn’t have to do it alone, so reach out. Knowing you can lean into the understanding of folks who will empathize, love and be a steady shoulder while you support your loved one will make you a stronger caregiver in turn.
Often and heartily. Sitting in the hospital or at someone’s bedside can make the most easygoing spirit tense. It’s natural to feel guilty about having a good time when someone you hold dear is enduring a health crisis. But a good belly laugh does wonders. For your frame of mind, brain chemistry (yes, it really is a natural mood booster!) and for the atmosphere of the room, laughter really is the best medicine. And while you’re at it, go ahead and share the chuckle via YouTube, DVD, joke books or stories with your loved one.
6. Take a break.
Emotionally and spatially. Stretch, stand, move, and breathe deeply whenever you can. Use basic yoga poses, twists, stretches or take a short walk. Leave the room where your loved one is for 10-15 minutes to ground and center yourself. If you can’t meditate fully, take a moment to close your eyes and linger in a place of gratitude and peacefulness.
The monotony of sitting (and sleeping) in hospital or bedside chairs can take its toll, mentally and physically. Small timeout — walking to the patient kitchen for a fresh cup of water and indulging in a few simple sun salutations by the window — helped me immensely while my mother was in the ICU, and almost always stimulated a second (or third!) wind.
The patient may be in need, and no doubt they're precious beyond measure — but you're precious, too! Take extra care to take care of yourself as well. Your body, spirit and loved one will thank you.