When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I dropped everything to help take care of him. Then, I learned a self-care lesson the hard way.

By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
April 02, 2019
Photo: Instagram/@jesscording

As a dietitian and health coach, I help others fit self-care into their hectic lives. I'm there to give my clients a pep talk on bad days or encourage them to prioritize themselves when they feel overwhelmed, and I can always be counted on to find the positive in a challenging situation. I tell them that building resilience and incorporating healthy habits makes a big difference when you're going through a tough time.

With all of this preaching to my clients, I got the shock of a lifetime when I realized I wasn't exactly practicing those same healthy habits. I needed to reteach myself some of these lessons too.

Sometimes it takes something big or scary to shake you out of a funk, and that's what happened to me. I had a close health call that could have killed me, and the experience showed me that I had to prioritize my own needs and self-care.

The Diagnosis That Led to My New Normal

When I was 31, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which, like most of those sneaky GI cancers, spread to wherever the f*** it wanted by the time it was actually found by doctors. My family had no idea how much (or how little) time we might have left with him but knew that it was limited.

That was wake-up call number one. I'd been burning myself out working almost every weekend at a hospital in its nutrition clinic while also building my own practice and taking on other jobs, and left almost no time for family. So I left my clinical job and started spending all my free time in New Jersey with my dad or accompanying him to doctor visits and treatments in New York City.

The funny thing about working in healthcare is that people think you're magically useful when your own family member is ill, but in reality, my dad didn't want me to be his nutritionist-he just wanted me to be his daughter and hang out. So I did. I would take client calls in my old bedroom and wrote most of my articles on my iPad sitting on the couch with him and the dogs or standing at the kitchen counter at my parents' house.

Sure, my sleep was terrible and my heart was racing all the time, but I kept telling myself this was just a thing we had to get through. When it comes to an illness with a punch-you-in-the-gut prognosis, not wasting a moment of time together and putting on a good face become an obsession of sorts. I was determined to seem positive AF, and I didn't post a word about his illness on social media.

My sister got married in the midst of all this, and I was hyper-focused on making sure my dad had a good time. They'd moved up the wedding date when he got sick. It turns out you can plan a wedding in three months, but it certainly added to the chaos.

When Things Took a Turn

I thought I had everything totally under control (I was eating a balanced diet, working out, going to yoga, journaling, going to therapy-all the things, right?), but I could not have been more wrong.

I got a manicure to prep for the wedding, which left me with an infection under my nailbed that my body just couldn't fight. Despite multiple rounds of antibiotics-a shock to my system, given that until then, I hadn't taken so much as a single dose of antibiotics in years-I ultimately I had to get my left thumbnail taken off.

I know that stress is linked to inflammation, which is a root cause of so many health issues, and my stress levels were definitely high; in retrospect, it's no surprise my immune system was impaired. (Related: 15 Anti-Inflammatory Foods You Should Be Eating Regularly)

A few rounds of one medication didn't work so I was put on another I'd never taken before. I was used to asking about food allergy considerations and drug-food interactions, but I never even thought about a potential drug allergy since I'd never had an adverse reaction to medication before. Still, when a rash began to spread over my whole body, I was so checked out, I thought it was eczema.

"It's stress," I thought.

Yes, but... no. Over the course of the day and into the night it got worse. My whole body was hot and itchy. I felt short of breath. I thought about calling in sick to the corporate wellness job I worked every Monday but talked myself out of it. "You can't skip work because you don't want to put on pants," I told myself. "That's just not professional."

But by the time I got to the wellness center, my face was red and puffy and my eyes were starting to swell shut. My colleague, a nurse practitioner said, "I don't want to freak you out, but you're having an allergic reaction to the medication. We're going to stop it, and then we're going to cancel all of your patients for today. You can just lie in the back room until you feel better."

Thank goodness I was in a place equipped to deal with this kind of issue. I was given an emergency shot of Benadryl and got more as needed throughout the day.

The Turning Point

Lying there in a stupor for several hours gave me a lot of time to think about my life and my priorities and how out-of-balance everything seemed.

Yes, I was making more time for my dad, but was I really showing up as my best self for him? I realized that the rest of the time, I was burning myself out running around to do things that weren't serving the bigger picture, and I wasn't being intentional about scheduling important recharging time for myself. (Related: How to Make Time for Self-Care When You Have None)

They sent me home with steroids to take and an order to take it easy for the next three days. I was still itchy and afraid to go to sleep that first night-what if I didn't wake up? Paranoid, maybe, but I wasn't in a good frame of mind. I remember feeling a lot of intense emotions that week, crying a lot, and decluttering the heck out of my apartment. It's also possible that I finally shredded a collection of old love letters that made me angry to even look at.

As I recovered, it really hit me how humbling the whole experience was: I'd been so checked out of my own body that I'd almost missed something serious. If I didn't take care of myself, how could I be there for my dad? It wasn't going to be easy or overnight, but I had to make some adjustments.

How I Began to Prioritize Me

I started saying "no" more.

This was hard. I was used to working around the clock and feeling obligated to fulfill every task. I started using an automated calendar and scheduled time for myself each day, setting more boundaries around when I would take meetings and appointments. I also found that the more I said "no," the easier it got. Getting clear on my priorities made it easier to know where to draw the line. (Related: I Practiced Saying No for a Week and It Was Actually Really Satisfying)

I hacked my sleep routine.

Shutting down my computer at night and keeping my phone away from my bed were both major game-changers for me. I also took my own advice about turning my sleeping area into a retreat: I splurged on new sheets and hung a pretty tapestry behind my bed that made me feel relaxed when I looked at it. Turning down the heat at night, taking a shower right before bed, and using lavender oil as aromatherapy helped a lot too. I also swapped out the as-needed sleep aids I'd been relying on (mostly Benadryl) for CBD oil, which helped me relax and drift off without that next-day grogginess. (Related: I Saw a Sleep Coach and Learned These Crucial Lessons)

I changed my workout routine.

I shifted from cardio-heavy workouts that had been wearing me out and focused more on strength training instead. I backed off on HIIT and started doing more gentle cardio like walking. Pilates became my BFF, as it helped ease the pain in my back from constant travel and tense muscles. I also began going to restorative yoga on a regular basis.

I tweaked my diet.

Sure, I ate an overall healthy diet, but some intense food cravings (namely for olive oil-packed sardines, avocado, and butter) suggested my cortisol levels were high and that my energy was low. I started incorporating more foods shown to help counteract stress. For example, I made antioxidant-rich berries my go-to fruit and embraced healthy fats, especially omega-3-rich foods like oily fish. I also found that lowering my carb intake also helped support more stable blood sugar, which was good for my energy and my mood. Every person is different in terms of what works for them, but at that point in my life, swapping out a sweet oatmeal breakfast for eggs and veggies made a world of difference. Because the antibiotics had wiped out the good bacteria in my gut, I also stepped up my probiotic game by including full-fat yogurt daily and taking a supplement with multiple strains of these beneficial bugs and included food sources of prebiotics (especially onions, garlic, and asparagus) as well to help heal my gut to support a stronger immune system and improved stress response.

I reached out to friends.

This might have been the hardest one. I am terrible at asking for help or letting others know I'm struggling. Being honest with those trusted friends about what I was going through, though, helped bring us closer. I was touched by how people shared their own experience and offered advice (when I wanted it) and just a supportive shoulder to cry on. There were plenty of times I still felt I had to be "on" (mostly, at work), but having a safe space made it easier to rally when I needed.

My Self-Care Bottom Line

Everyone has their struggles, and while they suck, they also offer a great learning opportunity. I know that for me, what I went through changed my relationship with self-care for good, and it helped me be more present with my dad in the last months of his life. I will always be grateful for that.