How to Set Boundaries in a Caregiving Relationship
If you have a friend or relative living with cancer, you may find yourself in the role of cancer caregiver. Caregivers play a crucial role in the cancer journey and help support the patient physically, mentally, and emotionally. You may be responsible for helping a person with cancer manage their daily activities, including bathing, dressing, taking medications, and going to appointments.
While it can be emotionally rewarding to be a caregiver for a patient with cancer, it can also be extremely difficult. You may sacrifice your personal time, other relationships, or your career to help your loved one. You may have financial concerns or worry about the outcome of treatment. You may feel angry, fearful, guilty, or hopeless.
It’s hard to help someone with cancer if you’re having trouble managing your caregiving role. If you’re having trouble adjusting, making a decision to focus on your own mental health and well-being can help improve your quality of life. To achieve your wellness goals, you may need to set certain limits to your involvement in cancer care.
Setting necessary boundaries
Caregiving can be emotionally complicated — you may or may not get along with the person you’re caring for and feel like you were forced into the caregiving role. You may also feel completely unprepared and unable to handle the responsibilities of caring for a person with cancer. It's important to understand that all of these feelings are completely normal.
If you start to feel beaten down as a cancer caregiver, you should consider setting personal boundaries with friends, family, and even the patient. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you don’t care about the person with cancer — it simply means you’re human and have limits to what you can handle. The earlier you identify and communicate your caregiving limits, the sooner alternative care can be arranged. This may be a difficult conversation, but it’s better to have this uncomfortable talk instead of allowing frustration and resentment to build.
It’s also important to communicate your limits clearly and thoroughly with other members of the cancer care team. As a caregiver, you are in a unique position in that you must give care, but you also need to take care of yourself to be strong enough for this task. While physicians and other providers should be mindful of the problems you may face,1 it can be hard for healthcare professionals to know exactly what’s going on when they’re not there. By discussing the problems you’re experiencing, the care team can make plans for extra support.
Taking care of your own mental health
Many cancer caregivers suffer from depression, and may also put off taking care of their own needs while they care for the patient. But addressing any emotional or mental health issues you’re facing is extremely important to your own health and well-being.
Taking charge of your mental health goes far beyond taking “me time,” even though that is certainly important. There are many strategies2 that can help you reduce your stress level and improve your mental health:
- Eat a healthy diet and exercise.
- Ask for extra support from family and friends if you are caring for someone with cancer.
- Take regular time away from your caregiving role. This might mean scheduling weekly or monthly nights out with friends or other family members.
- Seek out spiritual support. For some, this involves finding support from religious organizations. For others, journaling or meditating helps increase spiritual connections.
- Join a support group. Organizations like the American Cancer Society facilitate support groups specifically for cancer caregivers. Sometimes, there's nothing like talking with others who know exactly what you are going through.
- Get professional help if you need it. Some signs that you might need professional help include feeling sad or angry constantly, using alcohol or drugs to relax, or not taking care of yourself.
- Arrange for respite care. Respite care can provide a short-term break for cancer caregivers. You can use this time to go on vacation or visit with friends. Depending on the program, respite care services may be available in the home of the patient or in a local healthcare facility. Check with your loved one's insurance company, or with agencies like Medicare, for respite service options that may be available to you.
Cancer caregiving is a uniquely challenging role. It is normal to feel a variety of conflicting and upsetting emotions during this time. However, if these feelings are interfering with your own emotional health and sense of well-being, it’s time to take action to improve your own circumstances.
1. Adelman RD, Tmanova LL, Delgado D, Dion S, Lachs MS. Caregiver burden: a clinical review. JAMA. 2014;311(10):1052-60. doi: 10.1001/jama.2014.304.
2. If you’re about to become a cancer caregiver. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/caregivers/if-youre-about-to-become-a-cancer-caregiver.html. Accessed December 13, 2017.
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