The Importance of Maintaining Autonomy While Caregiving


It is important that caregivers of those with cancer step back and realize that they are their own person, too.

We all matter. It is a simple sentence that is left to the beholder for much interpretation. Yet, at its core, it is scientifically accurate. We are made of flesh, bone and blood — a combination of physical being mixed with spirit to form a human entity. I believe when the normal is interrupted, the line between body, mind and identify can be blurred. For me, that interruption was cancer.

Cancer was that one thing that entered my life and completely changed my reality. It changed the thoughts in my head and made me question the future that I thought was a sure thing. My brain struggled to filter the endless stream of new information. I felt pulled in every direction and it became difficult to process everything and decide where my focus needed to be. More than anything, I wanted to know that everything was going to be OK. I needed to know that my sister was going to be OK. The reality is, cancer strips away the possibility of that certainty that we crave in life.

In time, I came to appreciate that while medicine is an art from, it is far from being mastered. It is something that treats a part of us, but not the whole of us. Some things such as palliative care change that and make an attempt to treat the physical and emotional needs. But still, only time can heal certain aspects of us. Cancer leaves a tangled mess that isn't easily untangled.

As I began to try and move past all that was cancer, I came to understand that it was far harder than I had expected it to be. While you are enduring cancer's presence in your life, all you want is for it to end and for things to return to the way they were and life to go back to normal. In truth, when cancer came to an end, it was different. I had spent three long years adapting to how things were, and that it was now my normal. Thus, I could no longer remember the person that I was before cancer.

During the storm that was cancer, I did not take the time to practice self-care. In the after, I slowly began to practice simple mindfulness. I did not take to meditation, but being in nature was one of, if not the best thing that I did for myself. Since I had been my sister's caregiver for so long, I tried to focus less on her and more on myself. Each day, I made a point to set aside time to focus on what I wanted my own future to look life. Thinking about it was overwhelming at first, but it provided a sense of hope that my life had been missing for quite some time.

I feel that the human condition is to care for another in need. This condition is severely magnified when it is a family member or somebody that you love. Through being a caregiver, I learned so much about myself that I never knew. That being said, it was not until towards the end of my sister's battle with cancer that I think I learned one of, if not the most, valuable lesson. I learned that I needed to change direction. I had spent the longest time seemingly running from everything. Specifically, I was running away from cancer and all that I thought I couldn't handle.

When in truth, I just needed to stop. I learned more when I stood and faced the storm than I think I ever would have learned had I had kept running. I paused, and it was in that moment that I discovered I wanted to be a nurse. It was then that I learned the distinction between running away from and running towards something. It is something that is easily confused, because in a sense, the two options are similar. The distinction is that when I was running from something, I was doing so out of fear. When I made the choice to begin running towards something, I was running towards my future; I was running towards hope.

Although we learn from a young age that we are all our own person, it is a lesson that I seemingly forgot somewhere along the way. Somewhere on this journey, my sister and I become one person as I fought for her life and forgot the importance of maintaining autonomy. But in focusing on myself and turning inward, I was reminded of that lesson. Despite how much my day centered around her or how much of my time was delegated to caring for her, I was still my own person. And that I, too, mattered.

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