Many people diagnosed with breast cancer rely on one or more caregivers for support during treatment or recovery.
Some people are fortunate enough to live with family members, friends, or loved ones who can provide the cancer care and support they need. But many people live apart from their caregivers, which can be extra challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figuring out how to safely care for someone with cancer can be difficult right now. Being a caregiver is a tough job under normal circumstances, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caregivers facing new and unexpected challenges.
Everyone needs to limit physical contact with people outside their immediate household. But this is especially true for people with cancer because they have a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, particularly if they’re being treated with chemotherapy or other medicines that can weaken the immune system. Their caregivers also have to be extra vigilant.
Take steps to keep everyone healthy
The first thing to think about is safety — both for you as a caregiver and for the person you’re caring for.
Following recommended safety precautions reduces your risk of getting sick and protects the people you come into contact with. By taking steps to protect themselves, caregivers can stay available to provide care and reduce the risk they’ll infect the person they’re caring for.
It can help to talk to the person’s medical team and ask about their specific risk of COVID-19 infection, as well as the person’s risk of serious illness if infected. Besides the basic steps outlined below, the doctor may recommend additional measures based on the person’s unique situation.
To keep the person you’re caring for as safe as possible, it can be helpful to behave as though you’re sick to make sure you follow the most stringent guidelines.
If you’re a cancer caregiver, it’s recommended that you:
- stay home as much as possible
- have contact with as few people as possible
- avoid public transportation and unnecessary travel
- avoid social gatherings
- work from home if you can
- stay at least 6 feet away from people when you do have to go out in public
- wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after you’ve been out in public, coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, or using the bathroom
- don’t touch your face when you’re not at home
- clean items you touch often, including keys, cell phone, wallet, purse, light switches, door knobs, and faucet handles with disinfectant or disinfecting wipes
- wear a mask in public places
If you are caring for someone you don’t live with:
- avoid going inside their home
- drop groceries and supplies on their doorstep or porch or use a delivery service
- visit at a safe distance outside
- use communication tools such as Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom to keep in touch
If you must go inside the person’s home, you should:
- wear a mask, as should the person you’re caring for
- stay 6 feet apart from the person you’re caring for
- open windows if possible
- touch as few things as possible and wipe anything you do touch with disinfectant
- limit the time you spend inside the home
If you have to take someone to a doctor’s appointment:
- both of you should wear a mask in the car
- have the person with cancer sit in the back seat
- open the windows to increase air flow
- instead of going into the medical facility, have the person call or FaceTime you from the appointment so you can be with them virtually
If you’re a caregiver and you feel sick at all, do your best to have no contact with the person with cancer. If you live in the same home, you should isolate yourself in a separate room and use a separate bathroom if possible. Try to find someone healthy who can provide care until you’ve recovered.
Caregivers also can play an important role by watching for signs of COVID-19 infection in the person they’re caring for, including fever or cough. If you suspect the person you’re caring for is sick, call their doctor’s office and follow the instructions you’re given while making sure you protect yourself.
Other things you can do
There are other basic steps both you and the person you’re caring for can take to stay healthy during this time, including:
- staying informed about any infection hot spots in your area and following local, state, and federal recommendations
- getting plenty of sleep
- eating healthy foods
- exercising regularly
- avoiding alcohol and tobacco
- taking care of your emotional health by doing activities that bring you joy and make you laugh
- staying virtually connected with family and friends through tools such as FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, or other communication options
Don’t forget to care for yourself
Caring for someone with cancer can be both challenging and rewarding. At times you may feel overwhelmed, especially if you have to stay home as much as possible to keep everyone healthy and safe.
If you’re already anxious about your loved one dealing with cancer, the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic can make you feel emotionally and physically exhausted. But it’s important to know that your well-being influences the well-being of the person you’re caring for.
Psychologist Allison Applebaum, director of the Caregivers Clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering, said there is no right or wrong way to cope, but that all caregivers should be sure they’re not keeping their feelings bottled up.
“It’s normal to feel sad and anxious right now, and avoiding these feelings is not helpful,” she said in a statement.
To help caregivers cope with feeling overwhelmed, experts recommend you:
- take a walk outside; if you live in a crowded area, try to find a place with fewer people and wear a mask
- start a yoga or meditation practice; there are many apps available to help and guide you
- join a virtual support group specifically for cancer caregivers; if you need help finding a group, talk to a member of the care team of the person you’re caring for
- make yourself a special meal
- ask for help if you need it; you may want to have a second caregiver available who is following all the safety precautions, just in case you have an emergency
Jamie DePolo, senior editor
Adam Leitenberger, editorial director
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