Ten ways you can help yourself

Based on what parents have told us, here are our ten ways that you can start caring for yourself now.

1. Get some rest

Being the parent of a child with cancer can be exhausting – physically and emotionally. In the first few weeks, it’s normal for parents to run on empty and carry on, despite feeling tired. This is difficult to maintain and it could lead to you ‘burning out’ or becoming ill yourself.

It may seem obvious, but it’s important to rest. If you’re not sleeping well, try to grab quiet moments in the day to have a nap or 'switch off' for a while. Take breaks and create time to do this by accepting help from others.

2. Eat nutritious food

If you’re busy running around, spending time in hospital or feeling low then it can be hard to sustain a balanced diet. Many parents crave food that's comforting, quick and cheap. But eating nutritional meals will help give you the energy and strength your body and mind need.

If freezer space allows, stock it with frozen fruit and veg to chuck in sauces, stir-frys or smoothies. Fish and meat can also be defrosted for quick and healthy meals. Preparation is key if you’re staying in hospital so you could try batch cooking some meals if you have time. Or make the most of offers of help and ask friends or family to provide you with some home cooked meals.

"You will be dealing with lack of sleep, constant worry and anxiety and your health will suffer. I know it’s hard but your child needs you to be there for them so rest when you can and eat the best way you can to keep you healthy."

3. Make time for yourself

Taking some time out to do something you enjoy will help you feel rested and more able to cope with your situation. It’s often possible to create space in your life to do this but sometimes guilt can be a barrier. If you have a partner, talk to them and explain what you need. It might be that you can work out a way you can both have some quality time – both as individuals or together.

Make sure you enlist the help of friends and family too. They might be willing to look after your children so you can meet a friend for lunch, go to an exercise class or just have a long soak in the bath. 

4. Get active

Try to get some fresh air every day. Even just a short walk can clear your head, especially if you’re spending long stints in hospital. Do some exercise, even when you don’t feel like it. Just a ten-minute blast could boost your energy and turn your day around when you’re feeling crappy. There are loads of free tutorials on YouTube from boxing to belly dancing! Your body will thank you for it, and you might find your mental health and mood improve too. 

5. And… relax!

Relaxation is about using techniques in your everyday life to bust stress and improve your mental wellbeing. Mindfulness and meditation are now well-regarded methods for coping with the stresses of life but some people can be put off by the ‘spiritual’ connotations. You don’t have to think of them in these terms. You could simply call it your quiet time. Guided CDs and podcasts are a great way to start, and the app Headspace has been endorsed by professionals. 

Some people find physical therapies like massage and reflexology very relaxing and a great way to switch off for a short time. Your local Carers’ Centre may offer free complementary therapies for carers.

If this isn’t your bag either, do something you enjoy – get creative, listen to music, unwind with a friend, eat chocolate, cuddle your pet. If you feel like it’s still all getting too much, get some support and don’t suffer in silence. 

6. Share what’s going on with you

Sharing your thoughts and feelings with others can be one of the most important things you can do for yourself. By simply talking, you can find new perspectives; build or strengthen relationships and open doors to support. Feeling that you’re being heard and listened to can remind you that you aren’t in this alone.

Help family and friends understand what you’re going through. It can be hard to reach out and you might feel that some people have drifted away. Often people are simply trying to give you space and they’ll probably be thankful to know how they can best support you. 

This goes for your partner too – being honest can only help to go forward with a united front and keep distance from growing between you. If your child is old enough, sharing with them can be a positive exercise. They might then feel they have ‘permission’ to open up to you in return about some of their fears or worries. 

7. Connect with others who ‘get it’

No one will understand you better than those who have been through a similar situation. Whatever you have to cope with, the support of other parents can be invaluable. 

Whether you’ve just received the diagnoses or many years have passed, support groups are available in the community or online. They’re great ways of building connections with others who will know what you’re going through. You may have already formed bonds with people you’ve met in the hospital. Make sure you utilise this network of people – often parents find that they can be an invaluable source of strength to one another. 

“Talk to other parents and join a group on Facebook – no one else really gets it other than other cancer parents.”

8. Accept help from loved ones

It’s tempting to try to do everything yourself, especially at first. Often parents find it easier to keep busy in the first few weeks and months. You might feel that you can’t ask for help, especially if your child was diagnosed a long time ago.

Relying on others for emotional or practical support shouldn’t cause you to feel ashamed or that you’ve failed in some way. Think carefully about what you need right now. Is it support with practical chores? Is it a listening ear? Or is it creating some space and time so you can really look after yourself? Try to identify a few key people that you can turn to for help.

"When people ask if they can help, let them. We had wonderful friends who made us home-cooked meals and friends who took our other kids out for days out. People genuinely want to help so please don’t be afraid to ask them."

9. “Stay positive”

Well-meaning people telling you to ‘stay positive’ when you’re feeling hopeless or have been through unimaginable circumstances is unlikely to make you feel any better. In fact, it could come across as insensitive or even a bit ignorant. 

However, many parents tell us that positivity was their mantra. Being positive doesn’t mean being cheerful. A positive attitude can be adopted in many different ways. You could look for little things in your day that you can appreciate and be thankful for, like a phone call from a friend. You could adopt more positive lifestyle habits like making sure you're eating well or taking a walk in nature. Some find connecting with their faith uplifting. 

Remember, remaining positive or brave should never feel like a duty. Having low days is normal and stifling these emotions can be unhealthy. The most important thing is to not get caught up in negativity and to seek help if you feel you’re caught in a downwards spiral. 

10. Seek support from professionals

If your child is going through treatment, communicating with the professionals caring for your child can help you grasp a better understanding of what’s going on, helping you to feel more in control. They might pick up that you need some support, even before you do, and could put you in touch with people that can help.  

Professionals qualified in talking therapies can help you cope with your emotions and help you to develop coping strategies. They will have the skills and understanding to support you in your unique situation and may offer helpful perspectives.

Talk to your GP and they could help by referring you to a counsellor or therapist. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can also give you details of counsellors in your area, or check whether your employer has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). 

"If you are struggling emotionally, ask for help. Don’t try to be too brave, you are only human. It might be medication, talking therapy but don’t be afraid of it… what you are going through is massive and the chances are you will need some sort of help."

These organisations can give you more information and support.

Where next?

Created August 2017, next review due 2019.

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