Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Dog Cancer Caregiver Stress: Taking Care of Yourself So You Can Take Care of Your Dog

Updated: October 10th, 2018

Summary

How to know when you are experiencing dog cancer caregiver stress … and how to care for yourself, so you can care for your dog.

We know that adults who take care of their elderly parents often suffer from caregiver stress … but we rarely acknowledge that something similar happens to those taking care of their dogs with cancer. As the editor of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, I’ve found myself in the position to witness hundreds of thousands of loving people get what I call Dog Cancer Caregiver Stress.

We don’t often identify ourselves as “caregivers” … but that’s what we are. And we need help. Here’s just ONE posting on our private support group on Facebook for readers. (If you have read Dr. Dressler’s book, send an email to cs (at) mauimedia.net with proof that you’ve read it and we’ll be happy to have you in the group.)

By the time I post this article, I’m sure the comments will double on that post. It’s a great group!

The short answer to the poster’s first question is this: it’s totally normal to be quite depressed while caring for a cancer dog.

This post hopes to answer her second question, “How can I get myself out of this funk?”

Caring for our Dogs Is Wonderful … and Super Stressful

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who think of their dogs as family members, you are probably spending enormous amounts of time, energy, and probably money on your dog with cancer.

Taking care of our dogs — maybe especially when they are really sick — fulfills a deep need inside. We want to think well of ourselves. We want to look back years from now and know that we did well by our dogs.

Because after all, they EXCEL at doing well by us. The way my dogs look at me — with unconditional affection and loving regard — makes me feel lucky. In a very real way, my dogs’ love for me is healing.

And so, I want to return the favor.

As do all the dog lovers I know. We all want to give our dogs the best care possible.

But doing that is hard. It’s hard on us financially, with unexpected vet bills, massive shifts in grocery bills, extra cooking duties, trips to specialists — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. While many of the dog cancer strategies Dr. D recommends are free in terms of dollars and cents, they aren’t free in terms of energy, time, and emotion.

It is really natural to feel a lot of … feelings … as we deal with this. Any of the following, and any combination of the following is possible:

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Exhaustion
  • Loneliness
  • Grief
  • Hopelessness

Add all that up, and you get dog cancer caregiver stress.

Who Experiences Dog Cancer Caregiver Stress?

Everyone dealing with dog cancer experiences some level of caregiver stress, of course. But if you’re also dealing with other stresses, you might be at real risk. Take a look at this list, which includes just SOME stressors that can trigger a tough situation:

  • Social Isolation. Those who don’t have an active social life — even just a weekly meeting to attend — can be at risk.
  • Financial Difficulties. If you don’t have a lot to begin with, dog cancer can just about wreck your budget. And make you feel guilty on top of that.
  • Already Depressed. Anyone who has already experienced depression or a mood disorder in the past is certainly at risk.
  • Other Caregiving Roles. If you are taking care of other family members, like the poster in our support group, you are definitely at risk.
  • Recent Loss. Whether the loss is a death, a change in employment, or something else, it can add to your stress.

Signs You May Be Experiencing Dog Cancer Caregiver Stress

We often hear from readers who are obsessed with caring for their dogs. Rightfully so! There’s a lot to absorb, plan, and do.

But sometimes, it’s clear that readers don’t realize that their own health is suffering. Here are some signs of stress:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling worried on a constant basis
  • being “touchy” — irritable, or angry
  • feeling tired … a LOT
  • getting too much sleep
  • not getting enough sleep
  • feeling “wired and tired” at the same time
  • gaining weight
  • losing weight
  • feeling sad on a regular basis
  • feeling like things don’t matter much
  • losing interest in things you used to like
  • being in pain: headaches, joint aches, muscular pain
  • drinking or drugging (including prescription drugs)

Now, some of these symptoms some time might not be harmful in the short term. Life has its stressors for everyone, so it’s difficult to say “don’t stress” when life can absolutely be stressful.

But too much stress can harm you — especially when it happens over a long period of time.

If these things keep up, you can find yourself at risk for depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and other serious medical problems related to stress, like diabetes, heart disease … and even cancer.

How to Help Yourself to Help Your Dog

If you don’t take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of your dog. So take care of yourself! Here are some tips:

  • Take care of the basics. Drink plenty of water. Take a daily walk. Eat good food. Try to get at least twelve hugs a day! I also like to make sure I get a daily dose of dark chocolate for its flavonols and stress-relieving properties. 🙂
  • For many dog cancer caregivers, sleep is a real problem. We’re often up at night with our dogs, and we need a break. Figuring out a way to get good quality sleep is more important than you may realize. Don’t neglect it!
  • Reach out for, and accept help. Make a list of tasks that loved ones could do to help. Maybe your friend could come over and sit with your dog so you can take a run and a shower. If your local grocery provides phone or online orders, use them, and have someone else pick them up. If someone loves to cook, let them make you a meal.
  • Remember that it is normal to feel guilt-ridden. We all do. We all engage in magical thinking that tells us we could have prevented cancer if we’d only done X, Y, or Z. When you feel guilty, simply acknowledge that you do — but DON’T believe that emotion! Feeling guilty is not the same as BEING guilty. You aren’t.
  • Remind yourself that you are doing your best, and are making the best decisions possible. Because you are.
  • Say no to extra requests from friends and loved ones. Give yourself a break, and don’t do things that drain your energy. You need it for yourself. For example, should you host that birthday party? Say it with me: “No.”
  • Get support. Whether its a counselor, pastor, rabbi, or priest, reach out. Sympathetic friends in the health field often have great connections to support groups and counseling services. Ask.
  • Join an online support group if there isn’t one in your community. It’s unbelievable how helpful our Facebook group is for members! It’s not just about emotional support, either. People talk about all sorts of things, including treatments, supplements, diet, and hospice. It’s amazing.
  • Make connecting to loved ones a top priority. I bet you know at least one other person who feels about dogs the way you do. Make a point of reaching out regularly, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Nonjudgmental support is critical. (Hint: I don’t recommend talking to people who think “it’s just a dog,” because that person may minimize your feelings. Make sure you talk to people who understand the deep bond you have with your pup.)

If you are having trouble with your health in any way, see your own doctor for help. And make sure to tell him or her that you are a caregiver and experiencing stress.

You Aren’t Alone

Cancer is the number one killer of dogs. One out of two dogs over the age of ten have cancer. It’s just a sad fact of our times. So, unfortunately, you are not alone.

One of the features I added to the second edition of Dr. Dressler’s book is “True Tails.” These little stories from readers in the margin of the text add more voices to the book. I did that specifically to show you, the reader, that there are many other people out there. There isn’t just you and your dog, and Dr. D and Dr. Sue … there are all of us.

You’re not alone.

Warm Aloha,

Molly

PS: This song always makes me feel better, somehow. Less lonely when I am sad. And it makes me think of my rescue dog, Roo. Maybe it will be lovely for you, too.

Molly Jacobson is a writer and also the editor of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, published by Maui Media. A lifelong dog lover and self-professed dog health nerd, she is all too familiar with dog cancer. She has been supporting readers of this blog since the beginning. Molly earned a BA from Tufts University, and after a career in bookselling and book publishing attended The Swedish Institute to become a licensed massage therapist in New York State, licensed by the medical board. Her fascination with health is both personal and global, and she is most proud of how this site and the associated publications have revolutionized not only our approach to dog health, but our own health.

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