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Cancer Caregiver Burnout

How to Recognize It, and How to Prevent It


Updated November 14, 2010

When John Campbell began caring for his wife while she was being treated for stage III cervical cancer, he never imagined the toll it would take on him.

"I knew something was wrong when I felt too tired to even call friends and family," he says. "There were times I would go into my office and just cry for no reason. I became alarmed when I dreaded caring for her everyday."

John suffered from caregiver burnout, a common occurrence among cancer caregivers. Mental and physical exhaustion plague the caregiver, causing symptoms similar to mild to severe depression. The good news is that caregiver burnout can be prevented and managed.

Signs of Caregiver Burnout

The signs of burnout can present themselves in many ways, such as:
  • Changes in Sleep Pattern
    Sleeping too often, too little, or experiencing interrupted sleep can often signal caregiver stress or burnout.

  • Changes in Appetite
    Take notice of any change of appetite, such as eating more or less. This can result in weight loss and weight gain. Eating healthy can provide the much-needed energy to provide quality care.

  • Exhaustion
    Feeling fatigued is often one of first burnout symptoms people experience. If exhaustion prevents you from completing basic daily activities or is persistent, see your doctor.

  • Withdrawing from Friends and Family
    Caregivers suffering from burnout often withdraw from friends, family, and social activities. This may be due to feeling tired, experiencing guilt about being away from the patient, social anxiety or other reasons.

  • Feeling Overly Emotional
    Crying at the drop of a hat or feeling angry for no reason are important signs of burnout. Displaced anger can often occur during burnout.

Preventing Caregiver Burnout

Nipping burnout in the bud benefits both you, the caretaker, and the person you care for. You'll feel better, and thus be able to have more energy and ability to provide for the individual in need.

  • Take Care of Yourself
    You cannot possibly begin to care for another if you aren't taking the time to care for yourself. Keep up with your regular doctor's appointments, exercise, and a healthy diet.

  • Take Breaks
    Make time for yourself to relax and rejuvenate. Regularly schedule trusted friends, family, or a home health aide to relieve you of caregiving duties for a period of time each day. Many caregivers feel guilt about leaving the bedside, but it's also good for the patient. Seeing a new face and knowing the primary caregiver is getting relief can uplift morale. The patient may feel like less of a burden if the caregiving is shared.

  • Delegate Tasks to Family and Friends
    You will find friends and family are more than happy to help in time of need. You just need to ask. Things like cooking meals, running errands or cleaning can all be delegated to friends and family. Having someone else pitch in and help you with these tasks will leave you with time to concentrate on providing care for your loved one.

  • Educate Yourself about the Disease
    The more you know, the better you'll know what to expect. Ask doctors and nurses about your loved one's condition and what you as a caregiver need to know. The Internet is also a very good way to learn more about your loved one's disease. The American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute are excellent places to start. As you research, write any questions or comments you may have for the doctor and take them to the next appointment.

  • Get organized
    Many caregivers also are responsible for maintaining medical records, insurance claims, and finances, not to mention medication and eating schedules. The key to success here is organization. Keep medical records neat and accessible by storing them in a large file, organized by date. Medicine schedules can be created with a spreadsheet, then printed out daily or weekly. As each dose is given, you can check it on the sheet with the time. The same can be done for eating schedules.

  • Join a Caregiver Support Group
    Whether it be online or through the hospital, a caregiver support group is an excellent way to meet others going through the same thing as you. It really does help to have someone who can provide you with tips or can identify with daily caregiving life.

    Most hospitals have a caregiver support group. Check with the hospital administration or social worker. Your local American Cancer Society may have a local support group in your area, too.

When to Seek Help

If you feel like you may be experiencing caregiver burnout, see your primary care physician. He or she can make recommendations based on your symptoms and personal information. Some caregivers find relief in regularly talking to a therapist or religious counselor while caregiving.

If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or your loved one, go to your local emergency room or call 911. Severe burnout can result in these feelings, but help is always available.

"Taking Care of the Caregiver". My Planner. American Cancer Society. 11 June 2008. Accessed 28 June 2008.
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