Caregiver burnout in cancer: What are the warning signs and how to deal with it?
Just as airline safety instructions advise us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others, cancer caregivers must care for themselves first. Here's how
The aftermath of a cancer diagnosis and treatment journey can leave an indelible mark on survivors and their loved ones where caring for a loved one with cancer is a challenging journey that demands emotional strength and physical endurance but unfortunately, in the process of caregiving, caregivers often neglect their own physical and mental health which ends up leading to caregiver burnout. Caring for a parent or a partner with cancer can take an emotional toll on the caregiver where tasks such as daily assistance, multiple hospital appointments, watching them go through toxic treatments and balancing it all with their commitments at work and with family can cause significant emotional and physical pain and they might feel helplessness or guilt which may eventually lead to continued stress.
So, how can one recognise some of the signs that indicate that a caregiver is experiencing burnout?
In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Samara Mahindra, CEO and Founder of CARER, answered, “Caregiver burnout can manifest in various ways, with some common warning signs being chronic fatigue, which involves feeling constantly drained, both physically and emotionally. Another sign is irritability and mood swings, where caregivers may become easily frustrated or anxious due to the stress of their responsibilities. Withdrawal from social activities and friends is also a concerning sign, as caregivers may isolate themselves. Sleep disturbances are often experienced, with difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep being prevalent. Lastly, neglecting one's own health can be a significant indicator of burnout, as caregivers may skip meals, miss appointments, or forget to take their prescribed medications, prioritizing their loved one's care above their own well-being. These signs serve as essential cues for caregivers to recognise when they need to take steps to prevent burnout and prioritise self-care.”
Dr Mansi Khanderia, Lead Consultant - Medical Oncology at SPARSH Hospitals, added, “Warning signs of burnout include physical and mental exhaustion, social isolation, loss of interest in activities, decreased attention span, and a sense of hopelessness when a patient's treatment isn't progressing. Changes in eating habits, such as weight gain or loss, can also occur, potentially leading to depression and anxiety. In such cases, seeking professional help is crucial.”
How can one deal with it?
According to Samara Mahindra, dealing with caregiver burnout requires a multifaceted approach to ensure both the well-being of the caregiver and the quality of care provided to their loved one. She suggested, “One crucial step is seeking professional help by consulting a psychologist or therapist. These professionals can assist in processing the overwhelming emotions associated with burnout and offer practical strategies to cope with it effectively. Building a support system is equally vital. Don't hesitate to reach out to friends and family for assistance. Outsourcing household tasks that others can manage can alleviate some of the caregiving burden. Additionally, if feasible, consider hiring a nurse or professional caregiver to provide valuable respite care.”
The expert added, “Taking short breaks is an essential self-care practice. Stepping away from caregiving responsibilities, even if only for a few hours or days, can provide a much-needed recharge. Socializing with friends or embarking on a brief getaway can help rejuvenate your physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, equipping yourself with the right information is empowering. Learning about your loved one's medical condition and available treatment options can boost your confidence and reduce anxiety, making caregiving a more manageable task. By implementing these strategies, caregivers can better navigate the challenges of their role while safeguarding their own health and resilience.”
Bringing her expertise to the same, Dr Mansi Khanderia advised, "Primary caregivers must prioritise self-care by establishing a daily routine, maintaining regular meal and sleep schedules, and incorporating exercise into their lives. They should also be diligent about attending appointments and not neglect their own medical needs, a common oversight. Encouraging open communication with healthcare professionals can provide valuable support. It's essential to acknowledge and accept your emotions. Many caregivers experience frustration and may feel guilty for feeling this way, but accepting these emotions is crucial. It's important to learn to say "Yes" when help is offered and to say "No" when you're overwhelmed. Connecting with fellow caregivers through support groups can also provide much-needed relief."
She concluded, “Practicing Yoga and maintaining healthy eating and sleeping habits can significantly contribute to overall well-being. Caregiver burnout is widespread, especially in cases of chronic illnesses like cancer. Over 50% of caregivers experience physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, often neglecting their own needs in the process. Caregivers should prioritise self-compassion and set realistic goals for themselves. Encouraging them to seek assistance when things become overwhelming is essential. Just as airline safety instructions advise us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others, caregivers must be reminded to care for themselves first. Understanding the patient's illness is key and the emphasis should always be on the caregiver's well-being.”