Tips For Caregivers of Cancer Patients

What to know as you care for a loved one with Cancer

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Caring for a loved one with cancer is one of the greatest expressions of love. Putting aside the busyness of life to care for one less fortunate can be incredibly rewardin and there are few things we do in our day-to-day lives that are as important. At the same time, being responsible for the care of a family member or friend can be exhausting, and if adequate attention isn't given to self care, can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. Doing too much without the support of others can also create feelings of resentment that linger long after the crisis is over. What can caregivers do to care for themselves while they care for others?

Take Care of Yourself

Getting adequate rest, exercise, and good nutrition are more important than ever when you are caring for another. Despite the importance of self care, many people put their own needs on the back burner while caring for a loved one with cancer. Neglecting your own health, however, is not only harmful to you, but reduces your ability to be the best caregiver possible. Just as flight attendants tell people to put on their own oxygen mask first, it's not only important but necessary to put self care first on your list.

For those who still feel guilty about considering their own needs, take a moment to consider what you would hope for if the situation were reversed.

Seek Out and Find Support

Getting physical and emotional support yourself allows you to support your loved one to the best of your ability.

Finding people to help you care for your loved one is important in giving you enough time and resources to care for yourself at the same time. This may involve asking other family members and friends to assist you, even if you have a hard time asking for help. Check on resources in your community as well. A social worker at your cancer center can provide you with information on financial assistance, legal assistance, and much more.

Unlike health care providers in oncology who have colleagues who talk with, or cancer survivors who often pursue in person support groups or online cancer communities, family caregivers can feel very isolated. Fortunately, there are now support groups and communities designed specifically for caregivers. Organizations such as CancerCare and LUNGevity not only have online caregiver communities, but may be able to match you with a caregiver in a similar situation for one-on-one support.

If you can't find a support community your are comfortable with, or even if you do, there are a number of wonderful books available. A favorite is "Cancer Journey: A Caregiver's View From the Passenger Seat" authored by Cynthia Siegfried. Hearing about the experiences of someone who has been in your shoes in an honest and open way, can help you feel less alone in your current tole as caregiver.

Maintain Your Boundaries

Give as you can but know your limits. Many people become overwhelmed, depressed, angry, or resentful because they feel uncomfortable maintaining their personal boundaries.

Stop periodically and think about your giving. Are you feeling pleasure in your efforts? Giving beyond your ability and sacrificing your own needs may leave you feeling resentful and bitter.

Keep a Journal

Writing in a journal can be a great way to express those thoughts and feelings you can’t share openly, or can help you begin to understand what you are feeling in the first place. Checking back over your entries can also help you monitor your stress level and know if you are overextending yourself.

Studies have found that there are benefits of journaling for people with cancer, and those same benefits are present for cancer caregivers as well.

One caveat is that journaling can be a detriment instead if you find yourself "rehearsing" anger or resentment, or continually write about the same negative issues. If you find yourself doing so, ask yourself a question. Is the problem something that can be changed, or something that can't? If it can't be changed, begin to write about ways you can let go of the feeling. If change is possible, brainstorm ways in which that change may occur.

Educate Yourself

Learning as much as you can about your loved one's illness can help you understand more about what they are going through. It can also prepare you—a bit—for some of the inevitable bumps in the road.

Some people are afraid to learn more about their loved one's cancer; frightened that seeing something in print, such as a prognosis they don't wish for, will make it real. Yet people often find that uncertainty is even worse. Knowing what you might expect can at least help you look at options such as your plan B, plan C, and plan D, rather than worrying about what may happen.

Pamper Yourself

Take a bath. Indulge in a massage. Listen to your favorite music. Read an uplifting or inspirational book. Regular self care is important, but taking time to pamper yourself and reward yourself for a difficult job of caregiving well done can help you walk with a step that's just a bit lighter.

Take time to maintain your friendships. Caring for another does not mean giving up your own needs and desires. List out who you are other than a cancer caregiver, and make time in your life to be that person. Loss of identity in cancer caregivers can be a landmine in caregiving that can lead to burnout.

Maintain a Sense of Humor

Watch a funny movie. Ask friends to send you funny memes. Or compare the nurses and doctors around you to your favorite cartoon characters. Cancer is a serious, scary disease, but sometimes laughter is the best medicine. Check out books such as Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips. Laugh—but be sensitive. There is a time to laugh and a time to mourn.

A Word From Verywell

For other ideas on caring for yourself, as well as a chance to feel less alone and isolated as a caregiver for a loved one, talk with a nurse or social worker at your cancer center. Caring for a loved one with cancer can be extremely tiring and emotionally draining, but also brings tremendous rewards. We've known that cancer sometimes changes people in good ways, something known as posttraumatic growth, but we're learning that cancer caregivers often experience even more growth in this realm than the cancer patients they support. Think about ways that being a caregiver has changed you in positive ways, and continue to look for those silver linings along the journey.

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