Caring for the Caregiver During Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month – this may be a sad subject, but an important one. It is a time to remind ourselves and our loved ones to proactively take steps to prevent or detect the disease.

Men are often thrust into the role of caretaker for a woman battling breast cancer, whether that woman be a mother, sister, spouse, friend, etc. I know several of these amazing men. They commonly set their own mental and physical health aside to care for someone near and dear to them. This month— and throughout the year — let’s remind caregivers to care for themselves as well as their loved one.  

Optimal nutrition, exercise and emotional wellness are three areas that will help you in your caregiver role:

Nutrition

As caregiver, you’re expending a lot of energy caring for your loved one, which you likely have realized when you’re beat at the end of each day. Eating healthfully, while preparing healthy foods for your loved one, will help you keep your energy up and your own immune system primed:  

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. You’ll feel more energized and equipped to help your loved one face her disease — together.  
  • Avoid skipping snacks and meals. Try eating small, regularly spaced meals throughout the day. It can be impossible to prepare full meals throughout the day if you are the sole caretaker, especially if your loved one is in advanced stages of the disease.
  • On that note, perhaps you’re not used to playing the “head chef” role at home. It is not necessary to consult a cookbook every day — there are endless convenient, healthy meal suggestions online.    
  • As a guide, choose moderate-sized portions of lean, protein-rich foods at most meals, i.e. non-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans and eggs. Choose fiber-rich foods such as leafy greens, fruit and whole grains. Aim to make half of your plate fruit and vegetables.
  • Limit your intake of refined sugars, as these may make you unnecessarily sleepy due to a resulting flux in blood sugar levels. Energy-boosting foods include: melons for vitamins and hydration; protein-packed Greek yogurt; green tea, which contains L-theanine, an amino acid that may perk you up; magnesium-rich brown rice for a metabolism boost.
  • If you are responsible for keeping your loved one nourished and hydrated at home, follow food safety tips for the immunocompromised from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which include buying only pasteurized dairy, and avoiding salad bars and deli counters at the grocery store.  

Physical Activity

  • The importance of taking breaks, even short ones, can’t be overlooked. Get fresh air, take the dog around the block, or mow half of the yard.
  • Exercise can help lift your mood, keeping depression at arm’s length.
  • Exercise can also reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases; your loved one needs a healthy, effective caretaker at this time — take care of yourself!

Emotional Energy

  • Reach out to others — plan a social activity a few days out that will give you something to look forward to. Take a walk with a neighbor, rather than meeting (and sitting) for coffee.
  • Get enough rest.
  • Get help. You’re probably poring over healthcare options, medication schedules, doctor visits, etc. Perhaps your neighbor can bring a meal to the house one evening, or your spouse’s best friend can bring her to her next doctor’s appointment.
  • Seek counseling if you need it, or even if you feel you don’t. A counselor can help you sort through your frustration, grieve or simply listen. One organization in Wisconsin, for example, will soon provide support for widowed or grieving men that have lost a loved one to breast cancer, offering them a listening, caring ear in the form of other men who have also experienced a similar loss.

What additional advice would you share with caretakers?

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Krista Ulatowski
Krista Ulatowski, MPH, RDN, is a Seattle-based independent consultant who creates and implements marketing, communications and public relations programs for RDNs and food and beverage companies. Read her blog and connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.