The first year my husband was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his arm, we both just wanted to get through it and move on. I was fortunate to have a supportive workplace and family and friends who all helped, but we tried not to rely on them. However, when his cancer recurred a few years later, we both knew we would need support. Still, I struggled with asking for and accepting help.
It wasn’t until I got a coach that I could work through some of those issues. To this day, I am incredibly grateful for the amazing support family, friends, co-workers, my boss, and even complete strangers offered us during that time. Just thinking about it now brings tears of gratitude to my eyes.
Watching the news for even five minutes may have you believing the world is falling apart and people are not good. But the news will not show you how the neighbor you’ve hardly talked to is more than willing to help when you need them. Or how your boss or co-workers, friends and family will rally around and help when they find out what’s happening.
So, keep reading for practical ways to build a caregiver support system and how to ask for and accept help when offered. Don’t be jaded by the news–go out and build that support network!
What Do Caregivers Need Most?
As a caregiver for a spouse with cancer, you need many things. You need the doctors to give you a clear treatment plan. You need your spouse to feel better. You need answers to your endless questions. Unfortunately, many of those things are entirely out of your control. What is in your control is finding people to support you as you navigate this up and down journey with your partner.
You may be tempted to go it alone. And that is fine and can work for a while. However, cancer is often a long journey with many ups and downs and events you never foresaw. Humans are a tribal species–we are meant to connect and rely on others. Having people in your corner will really help you feel more connected and resilient through the challenges.
What is a Good Caregiver Support System?
A good support system is a network of people who can provide practical or emotional help for you and your spouse during this journey. Your network doesn’t need to be big but should include people who can provide practical support, like helping with errands and chores, as well as people who can be there for you emotionally.
From time to time, and depending on your partner’s health, you will need people who can support you by helping with household chores, errands, shopping, cleaning, car maintenance, etc. This caregiver support system can be as big as you need and may even include strangers from time to time. Not every person makes a good support system, and that’s okay! It’s better to have a few people you can truly rely on than a bunch of people who aren’t there when you really need them.
You only need one or a few select people to be there for you emotionally. Someone you can talk to about your worries and fears and all the emotions you are going through. Someone who won’t mind if you break down in tears and cry on their shoulder. Someone who will give you that much-needed hug.
If your spouse has been the emotionally supportive person in your life, that’s ok; they still can be! It’s OK to lean on them even though they are going through this health challenge. This connection is essential for your relationship! However, I also recommend you find another person or a coach you can go to with things you may not want to burden your spouse with.
6 Ways to Build Your Caregiver Support System
I know it’s hard asking for help. You don’t want to burden people with your “problems” and emotional ups and downs. I understand, and I felt the same way. However, many people genuinely want to be there for you and help in any way possible. Imagine if the situation were reversed and someone you knew was dealing with their partner’s cancer battle. Wouldn’t you want to help? Of course, you would! So, here are some tips for reaching out and building your caregiver support system.
1. Start with People You Know
Who in your life has been present throughout this journey so far? Who texts you to see how you’re doing or shows up with dinner because they know you’ve been at the doctor’s office with your spouse all day? Reach out to people who are already reaching out to you. You’ll be surprised how many people have been affected by cancer in some way and want to help. If you have a close friend or sibling, they are obvious people to incorporate into your caregiver support system. They know you, love you, and want to help you.
2. Accept Offers to Help
The easiest way to start building a caregiver support system is to say yes when people offer help! Usually, this offer comes in the form of an open-ended statement like, “Whatever I can do to help, just let me know.” Confession: I always hated this because I was so overwhelmed sometimes that I didn’t even know what I needed. If that is where you are, I understand. Here is what I recommend.
When you get an open offer of help, but don’t really know what you need, just be honest. The more you share what is going on, the easier it will be for others to help. You might say something like, “That is so great of you to offer. I’m feeling so overwhelmed and don’t really know what I need, but if you have something in mind, I’m sure it will be helpful.” That is a great place to start, and often they will suggest something.
3. Be Clear on What You Do Need, and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
One of the things I really wanted help with was keeping the house clean. But I was so afraid to ask. It seemed like too much. I finally expressed this to one of my longtime friends, and she hired a house cleaner to clean my house. It was the best gift ever!
Here is the thing: people really do want to help. But often they don’t know how to help or what you need. You need to tell them! Be as specific as possible. And give them permission to say no. If you feel weird or embarrassed asking for certain things, here is what I recommend. You may say, “I need some help with my laundry, but I know that’s kind of personal, so I understand if it’s too much to ask.” Let it be OK for people to say no. Really! We all filter the world through our own lenses. While laundry might be personal for one person, it’s no big deal for someone else. Don’t make it mean anything about you if someone is not comfortable doing the thing you asked. Ask them for something else (like running errands or helping with meals).
4. Teach Your Closest Friends How to Hold Space for You
One of the most important aspects of your caregiver support system is having one or two people who can just listen to you, acknowledge what you are going through, and offer a hug. However your well-meaning friends don’t want to see you upset, so they may try to offer solutions to fix your problems or tell you how you can feel better. This is usually the last thing you want. What you need is someone to listen with love and compassion. Don’t be afraid to tell your friends that you don’t need them to fix anything or offer solutions; you just need them to listen and hold space for all your thoughts and emotions. There is a great poem that expresses this. Read it here, and feel free to share it with your closest friends.
5. Have Someone Act as a Proxy
Coordinating help can feel overwhelming. If you are in this boat, I recommend asking someone to take on this role on your behalf. Choose someone who won’t mind reaching out to others. Then, you just need to communicate your needs to that one person, and they can take care of coordination. There are also many free website services that can help with communication and coordinating support these days. I used CaringBridge.
6. Look outside of Your Inner Circle
There are people all over the world going through a similar experience and caregiving for their spouse with cancer. Sometimes the best caregiver support system comes from people you don’t know but who know what you’re going through. You might find connection and support in a caregiver support group through your local hospital or online. I offer a free Facebook Group for people caring for their partner. You can go here to join: Stronger Together – when you are caring for your partner.
Strengthen Your Caregiver Support System with Coaching for You
Your caregiver support system can consist of different people who support you in different ways. You might have one friend who is the best person to go to when you need a night out where you don’t think about your spouse’s cancer at all. You may have a family member who is your shoulder to cry on. Knowing what you need support for and who to go to for certain things will help you build a strong support system of people who are there for you when you need them.
People want to help, including me! Having a coach as part of your support system can be an amazing thing. I’ve been on this journey and understand the ups and downs and challenges you face as a caregiver for your partner. I teach you simple tools and techniques to guide you through this time. Set up a time to see how I can offer you support.