Cancer Caregiving: Setting Boundaries and Learning to Let Go

On learning the difference between caregiver and seeing the signs of codependency.

As a caregiver for nearly the last three years, I’ve experienced everything that my sister has. The greatest and most imperative difference is that it was all happening to her. It has often left me feeling both helpless and hopeless, sitting idly by as cancer ravaged her and tried its best to steal away the young woman who happened to be my sister.

During the course of this time, I have frequently set aside my own wellbeing for the betterment of hers. Not wanting to focus on myself, in part, because of the guilt that I felt because she was the one who was sick and not me. It has fractured the relationship that I had with my family, and seemingly has hindered the one that I had hoped to have with her.

Having never cared for somebody who was sick before, I didn’t understand the difference between what I’d done and what I did for my sister. With her diagnosis, I had an innate need to be with her. It is hard to pinpoint what emotions drove my choices and what made me chose to do what I did. After reading through my own notes and journals, I think I chose to control what I could in a situation that was far from my control. That meant learning all that I could, because if I knew it all, there would be nothing to fear. This is not at all factual, but in a way, that is how my foray into caregiving began.

The thought of losing my sister meant that I wanted to spend as much time as possible with her for fear that she would slip away and I would lose her. What I did not realize is that over time, it was becoming detrimental to my own wellbeing. My reactions to things and how much time I was spending with her was not healthy for either one of us. My actions were aiding in her dependency, when the goal was to help her be independent despite the illness that was slowly making her weaker. Albeit in a distinctly different way, I did not realize that in some ways I was doing the same thing.

I have been told on separate occasions that I was suffering from caregiver burnout. A term that I had not heard until visiting with a personal therapist this past fall was codependency. In a nutshell, codependency begins for many reasons but can be rooted in the need to ease anxiety or to be in control. As I have been reflecting on my own reasoning, I now understand that I began as a caregiver and at some point, it turned into a caretaking. When this journey began, I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere by her side. Anything I could to make her smile or to ease the pain is what I did.

Now though, I know that it is time to take a step back. I have rarely practiced my own self-care out of guilt. When in reality, self-care is an important skill for anybody to practice — especially somebody who is caregiving. It is something that I have expressed many times because if we do not care for ourselves, we can not care for those that we love either.

By nature, I am a problem solver. When something arises, I dive in and find a solution. The complicated thing about cancer is that you can’t just fix it. Even now in remission, she has a vast amount of chronic illnesses that will stay with her for the rest of time. This is not something I easily cope with, seeing as how many of those choices were mine to make. As I stated, anxiety and fears were soothed when I took this role on. However, it now creates an immeasurable amount of depression, anxiety and frustration for myself. It greatly affects the relationships that I have both inside and outside of my family. It is admittedly hard to take a step back and acknowledge that though I had the best of intentions, it is time to now make new choices — choices that will benefit not just my sister’s health and happiness, but my own.