How to Support Yourself as a Caregiver for a Spouse with Cancer

Caregiver for a spouse with cancer, spousal caregiver, cancer caregiver, spouse with cancer, caregiver for spouse with cancer

When you become a caregiver for a spouse with cancer, you automatically take on a new role–probably one you were not prepared for. In this role, you wear many hats, and you may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing much of the time. It’s easy to lose yourself and become completely consumed by caring for your spouse. 

Where do you draw the line between caring for them and caring for yourself? 

As a caregiver for my husband during his cancer battle, I often struggled with this very question. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough for him, yet at the same time, it felt like cancer had completely taken over our lives. As a result, I felt conflicted and often guilty. I couldn’t enjoy my time alone and always felt inadequate in my care for him. Finding a balance took time, but it was a game-changer once I learned how to take care of myself. Keep reading for my best tips to support yourself as a caregiver for a spouse with cancer.

What is a Spousal Caregiver?

As a caregiver for a spouse with cancer, you are their primary support, emotionally and sometimes physically. As a spousal caregiver, your responsibilities can vary widely. What you take on often depends on the stage of treatment your spouse is in and how well your spouse can take care of themself.

On the emotional support side, responsibilities can include: 

  • Discussing and helping to decide on treatment 
  • Comforting your partner
  • Keeping family and friends informed and updated
  • Helping manage side effects of treatment 
  • Noticing changes so you can keep the medical team informed

On the physical support side, some responsibilities can include:

  • Giving medications
  • Coordinating care and trips to the doctor and hospital
  • Taking care of household chores
  • Taking on additional responsibilities such as finances
  • Physically assisting them 

These are just a few things you may take on as your spouse’s caregiver, and it can quickly become overwhelming, especially if you are also working and raising children! 

How Does Cancer Affect the Caregiver?

When you become a caregiver for your spouse, you may not be prepared for how their cancer will affect you. You may not even think of yourself as their caregiver. However, their cancer diagnosis will impact the whole family in different ways. Here are just some of the things you might experience when taking care of your partner: 

  • Having a hard time balancing caregiving and other responsibilities like work, kids, etc. 
  • Neglecting self-care out of feeling selfish or unworthy since you aren’t the one with cancer  
  • Not asking for help because you don’t want to burden others 
  • Not knowing what to tell family and friends (especially after an initial diagnosis)
  • Feeling like you need to be constantly available for your spouse
  • Feeling like you need to be strong for them and not let them see your struggles
  • Struggling with your own emotions and what their diagnosis means for your future
  • Wanting to protect others, like your children, from emotional pain
  • Putting all your plans on hold

Whatever you’re feeling–however your spouse’s cancer diagnosis is affecting you–there are things you can do to support yourself as a caregiver for a spouse with cancer.

6 Ways to Support Yourself as a Caregiver for a Spouse with Cancer

Now, you may be wondering, “What do I do if my spouse has cancer?” Truthfully, there are many answers to that question, but one of the most important is you take care of yourself too. Being a caregiver for a spouse with cancer is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, and admitting that doesn’t take away from the hardship your partner is experiencing. Both can be true at the same time. But in order to take care of your spouse well, you must first learn how to take care of yourself. Here are six ways to do that, starting today.

1. Build Your Mental Resilience

Your mental resilience is going to be what gets you through this season. Resilience doesn’t mean never experiencing fear, worry, or doubt. It means having the ability to bounce back from those experiences. The key to building your mental resilience is recognizing and staying focused on what is within your control. 

Here is an exercise you can do to start strengthening your mental resilience. Draw two circles on a piece of paper. Label one “Things outside my control” and label the other “Things within my control.” Now spend 5 minutes filling both circles. You want to clearly identify what is within and not within your control when it comes to your spouse’s cancer. To build resilience, recognize when your thoughts, actions, or emotions are focused on things outside your control. Then shift your focus to what you do have control over. 

2. Expand Your Emotional Capacity

Learning to accept your emotions without judgment and having ways to process them is essential to thriving as a caregiver for your partner with cancer. You need to accept that having all these difficult emotions is normal, and it doesn’t mean anything has gone wrong. Allowing yourself to feel the hard stuff will create room to recognize and feel the good stuff. By doing this, you will not let your emotions overpower your ability to care and be present for yourself and your spouse. 

Here is an exercise you can do to start expanding your emotional capacity. Anytime you notice fear, anxiety, worry, sadness, or any other negative emotion coming up, take a minute, close your eyes, and say to yourself: “I’m feeling fearful right now, and it’s OK. I can allow myself to feel this emotion.” When you do this, you acknowledge the emotion and open yourself to feeling it. This may seem strange initially, but it is the quickest way to feel better! 

3. Get Rid of Should and Must 

This is a time when you need to adjust your expectations about what you can do and get clear on what is most important. You won’t have the energy to do everything to the same standard you did before. Maybe you won’t be able to keep the house as clean or be as organized as you were. You may start judging or criticizing yourself for not being able to keep it all together. Stop! This is the time to eliminate “should” and “must” from your vocabulary. Be kind to yourself. Right now, identify a few of your most important things and be willing to let the rest go.  

4. Take Breaks

Nobody–not even superwoman–can be a caregiver for a spouse 24/7 with no breaks. It just isn’t possible. You need a moment to be with yourself and breathe. That’s okay! Give yourself what you need so that you can be an even better partner and caregiver to the one you love. In fact, take 30 seconds right now and just breathe. Pause. Relax. 

5. Ask For and Receive Help

While you may not want to burden people and ask for help, here’s the truth: People who love you want to help. They want you to tell them how they can support you. Let them know–let the people in your life help you during this time. Is there someone who has shown an interest in providing you support in some way? Text or call them right now and practice receiving help. If you struggle with this, I encourage you to read this article: Asking For and Accepting Help  

6. Incorporate Joy into Your Life

While your priorities will change during this season, it’s important to incorporate things you love into your life, even if it’s at a smaller scale than before. It’s essential to have something for yourself that is relaxing or nourishing. It will help refill your emotional tank and allow you to be there as a caregiver for your spouse with cancer. Write down one thing you love to do that you can fit into your schedule within the next week and plan on taking the time to do it. 

Support Yourself with Life Coaching When Your Partner Has Cancer

As a caregiver for a spouse with cancer, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s hard on you, too, just in different ways. Learning to prioritize your care will enable you to be there for your spouse when he most needs you. In this article, I shared some of what I teach my clients to do: build their mental resilience, expand their emotional capacity, prioritize, take breaks, learn to ask for and accept help, and find some form of joy for themselves.  

Investing in life coaching is another great way to support yourself. A coach will help you identify and work through your biggest challenges while you build your mental resilience and emotional capacity. I offer several ways to support you during this journey. Click here to learn how you can get support as a caregiver for a spouse with cancer.

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