We all know that life isn’t fair, but sometimes it seems like the odds are overwhelmingly against us. Ask any family caregiver who has been diagnosed with a chronic or potentially fatal disease. Their own health and the future of the loved ones who depend on them hang in the balance, which only compounds the distressing news.

Studies showing that caregivers are at greater risk for physical and mental health issues aren’t hard to find. Chronic stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, unhealthy lifestyle choices and other serious conditions. Additionally, caregivers are notoriously short on time, money and energy. We tend to put our own needs after everyone else’s, including annual checkups, preventive screenings and even problem visits. After all, who wants to go sit in the doctor’s office after already having spent hours in health care settings with their loved one?

But without routine medical care, family caregivers risk allowing diseases to go undetected and untreated. Early interventions are often crucial for positive health outcomes, even with mild, slow-progressing and easily treatable conditions. Denial factors into neglecting our health, too, since we caregivers often don’t have a clue who would take care of our loved ones if something were to happen to us.

A Cautionary Tale for Caregivers Who Skip Mammograms

I recently heard the story of a mentally sharp and physically fit woman in her early 70s. She was caring for her husband of many decades who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The wife was coping as well as could be expected, but she was also doing what many caregivers do: ignoring her own health needs.

This lovely, intelligent woman had always been healthy and disciplined about scheduling annual checkups and recommended screenings, including annual or biannual mammograms. They had all come back negative over the years, and she did regular breast self-exams. However, after her husband’s diagnosis, dementia care took over her life. She skipped a handful of her routine appointments simply because she felt “doctored out” after seeing to all her husband’s medical needs. Caregiving can be exhausting, but about three years into this role, her chronic fatigue seemed extreme even to her. This is when she decided to finally make a doctor’s appointment for herself.

The results were not good. After many tests, her doctor informed her that she had an aggressive type of breast cancer. She’d need a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Her first thoughts were about how she could possibly care for her husband while going through intensive cancer treatment.

What Happens When the Caregiver Gets Sick?

What this woman did was enlist her children’s help more than ever. She also hired in-home care for a while. Unfortunately, after receiving her own diagnosis, her husband’s dementia seemed to progress more quickly. Despite his cognitive impairment, he somehow understood the seriousness of his wife’s disease. His anxiety and confusion worsened when she was away for treatments and when she was home contending with their side effects.

Eventually, it was too much for the family. This woman decided it was time to place her husband in a memory care unit. For several months, she visited him there as often as she could. Then the day came when she could no longer manage to visit. Within a week, she had died. The family took her husband to her funeral even though he couldn’t fully understand what had happened. Only 10 days later, he died, too.

If this caregiver had prioritized her own needs and attended routine checkups including mammograms, would she still be alive? We don’t know, of course. However, I believe it’s fair to say that she would have had a better chance of survival had she cared not only for her husband but for herself as well.


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Health Care Is Self-Care

Sadly, this type of story isn’t uncommon, especially as it pertains to breast cancer among caregivers. The most recent data available on family caregivers show that 61 percent are female with an average age of around 49 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gender and age are the most influential risk factors for breast cancer; most diagnoses are made in women who are 50 years old and older. This overlap in risk factors and demographic characteristics underscores the importance of breast cancer screening for caregivers—even men. Although breast cancer is far less common in men, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 2,650 new cases will be diagnosed and about 530 men will die from this disease in 2021.

In popular culture, self-care is often reduced to lifestyle choices like eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising, and combatting stress by taking a bath, reading a book, getting a massage or watching TV. These things are all important, but the less glamorous side of self-care—getting a flu shot, receiving regular health screenings, and going to the dentist—is essential, too.

The warning we’ve heard on airplanes (so frequently that we ignore it) holds true in caregiving. The flight crew tells you to put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping those around you. Doing so is the only way you keep your ability to assist others in need.

If you are serious about providing the best care possible, you absolutely must take care of your own physical and mental health—even if it means less hands-on personal care for your loved one at the time. Why? Because if you take care of yourself, it increases your chances of being present and able to continue caregiving.

Make time for your mammograms, blood work, gynecological exams, eye exams, etc. Get good rest. Do what you need to do to prevent burnout and safeguard your mental health. Yes, it’s easier said than done and respite care is rarely free and easy to arrange. However, if you neglect your health and experience a serious setback, you will have to find even more time and energy for more appointments, treatments and healing. If you don’t take the time to make yourself a priority now, you may not be around to care for your loved one later on.