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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

Cancer Caregivers Need To Take Care Of Themselves Too!

Written by Dr Shara Cohen on 
30th January, 2022
Updated: 4th February, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

A cancer diagnosis affects everyone. When someone has cancer, it's easy to overlook the toll the disease also takes on the caregivers. This article addresses what being a caregiver means and, what caregivers need, both in terms of practical and emotional support.

A cancer diagnosis affects close friends and family members.

A cancer diagnosis can be understandably devastating and people with cancer face a lot of physical and emotional challenges. These include time-consuming medical appointments and therapies, dealing with side effects of treatments and the emotional toll of not knowing what the future hold. They may also worry about a particular family member or loved one. There might be financial concerns regarding the need to stop work or medical care bills. These all take their toll. All cancer patients need help. This help can come in many forms including their medical care team and professional community support groups, but an overlooked group of people who provide support are the unpaid caregivers:- a particular friend or loved one who is with the patient throughout the whole ordeal or the circle of family members and friends who ensure there are meals appropriate meals available for the cancer patient when they feel too ill to look after themselves, or those who arrange hospital appointments and drop off or pickups. These caregivers play an invaluable role in the support of the cancer patient. Providing both emotional and practical support.

But cancer dramatically alters these relationships, as it forces parents to depend on their children and independent people to rely on their loved ones. Cancer patients may rely heavily on their caregivers which can feel like a burden. Those who support cancer patients, their spouses, partners, siblings, children and friends, maybe putting their own needs on the back burner. This could eventually lead to burnout or resentment. So it is very important to acknowledge the work of the unsung caregiver heroes and to ensure that they get the emotional support that they need to help to continue thei support and to ensure they are OK

Looking after a person with cancer

We think of caregivers as the unpaid loved ones, family and friends who give the person with cancer physical and emotional care. Most often, they are not trained for the caregiver job and usually, they are a lifeline for the person with cancer. 

Caring for someone with cancer means different things to different people, as someone with cancer will have a range of needs. It could mean

  • learning to listen to cancer patients needs and understanding how to speak compassionately
  • understanding the cancer diet
  • taking care of everyday activities like visiting the doctor and cooking meals
  • learning how to cook in a new way
  • debunking the cancer conspiracies, fake cures, and unhelpful advice
  • learning how to provide support during different treatments such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy
  • helping the cancer patient navigate cancer during holidays and festivals, such as Valentines day, Mothers day, Fathers day and Christmas
  • keeping in touch with and supporting other family
  • providing inspiration and/or wisdom when and if appropriate
  • finding an appropriate support group, either online or in-person

The list is in fact endless. We have a number of reports, growing all the time, which discuss many of the above needs and how to address them. These are in our 'my friend has cancer' section, so we won't discuss each individual need, here. But it is clear from the list that people affected by cancer can have an array of different needs, and caregivers need a wide range of knowledge and skills to deal with these. Caregiving is an ongoing learning process. No one can be expected to have the knowledge needed and skills required straight away.

Coping with being a cancer caregiver

It is important to remember that the caregiver is usually a close friend, family member, or loved one. And as mentioned above they usually have no training, but need a wide range of skills and knowledge (which is usually learned/ picked up as and when it is needed). So the stress of acquiring these new skills together with the emotional stress of watching their friend or family member be ill can become overwhelming. Added to this is the fact that many caregivers put the needs of the patient's cancer above their own needs.

So it is understandable that being a caregiver is tough. Taking care of another person can be stressful at the best of times. Although everyone has some stress, too much can harm health, relationships, and the quality of life.

Caregiver stress can occur when the caregiver doesn't have time to do all that's asked or expected. Sometimes they may feel that no matter what they do it's not enough, or like everything is on their plate. or that what is required of them is just overwhelming.

So it is important for any caregiver to recognize when they take on too much, to talk to people to ease the burden and to make sure they are looking after themselves.

After all, if they get too stressed and overwhelmed, they won't be able to look after their loved one or friend.

Being part of the health care team

Remember that caregiving is a team effort

If you are caring for a person with cancer, you are a very important part of the cancer patient's care team. Your role may change over the course of treatment. For example, you may provide mainly emotional support at the time of diagnosis, and take on daily tasks later on. You may help your loved one with household chores, personal hygiene, going to the doctor, and even paying bills. 

A caregiver is a member of an important health care team of family, friends, volunteers, medical professionals, and health workers. Each member of the team offers different skills and strengths to provide effective care. If you are the main caregiver, help each team member express concerns, opinions, and emotions. Also, make sure that the person with cancer has a central role in all discussions and decisions, if possible.

 You could also develop a relationship with one or two key members of the health care team, such as a social worker or patient educator. It may help you feel more at ease to have direct contact with someone involved in the medical care of your loved one. 

Cancer caregivers need to take care of themselves 

Here are some suggestions for caregivers to start to take care of their needs

Don't feel guilty

Don't let the illness of the person you are caring for make you neglect your needs through guilt.  You can't help someone else if your levels of energy and patience are low.

Make a happy list

Write down some of the things that help you feel joy and make time to do them, such as

  • playing a good song
  • going for a walk
  • taking a bubble bath

Relax

It's very important to keep up healthy sleep habits.

Don't get disconnected from the people you care about

Caregivers can place a big strain on families. Carers sometimes say that friends and family disappear once caring begins. This can lead to feelings of isolation and resentment.

If you can make some time for a quick call or catch up, share some moments in front of the tv or have a night out with those not involved in your caregiving, it can help you focus more on your life outside of caregiving. This can give you a renewed energy for helping your friend with cancer.

Don't be hard on yourself

Be sure to recognize your stress and take steps to help you ease this strain.

Talk about it

If you can talk to someone not as close to the cancer patient as you are, about what you are facing, it may be that they will see any issues you have in a new light. Even if they have no suggestions or offers of help, just talking about your concerns as a caregiver, your needs and stresses can help you cope a bit better. You could also check out this caregivers forum.

Ask for help

If you are finding the caregiver role hard, you could reach out to an oncology social worker. This is a professional who can devise a personalized plan to help you cope with your role as a caregiver.

Carers UK is a charity that supports carers, many of whom are stretched to the limit. Carers UK are there to listen, to give expert information and advice tailored to the situation.  They champion the carers' rights and support them in finding new ways to manage at home, at work, or wherever they are.

Get active

When caring for someone else its often the case that can't find the time and motivation to take part in physical activity.

Doing physical activity might be far from your mind when you’re juggling your work and looking after your family member or friend but, to support both your physical and mental health, it’s important to find time for you.

Katherine Wilson (Head of Employers for Carers)

Join a caregivers support group

Spending some time talking to people who understand what you’re going through can help tremendously. Check our cancer directory and cancer event listings to see if there are any support groups near you.

Take a break and don't feel bad

A sense of guilt and anxiety can put you off setting aside necessary time for yourself. You may wonder if the person you care for will be well looked after in your absence or whether they might feel left behind or neglected? But do consider having some time away, it may be just what you need.

Final thoughts

We have tried to emphasize the impotence of caregivers looking after themselves as well as their friend or loved one with cancer. If you have any more tips or advice, or don't agree with what we have said, please do let us know

Thoughtful self care gifts for a cancer caregiver

Further reading

Five Lessons I Learnt Caring For Someone With Cancer-Plus A Daily Tonic

Cancer Articles Written By An Expert Team, Partners, and Friends.

Cancer Care Parcel: FAQ About Our Gifts

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3 comments on “Cancer Caregivers Need To Take Care Of Themselves Too!”

  1. What a fantastic idea this is exactly what is needed, I am a survivor if breast cancer, I no.only to well how low it.got, and receiving a parcel would have been amazing, would love to.come on.board.and help in anyway I can

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