Caring for Someone with Cancer
Caring for yourself
Many carers say that providing care can affect their health and wellbeing, relationships, work and finances. Caring can be rewarding, but it may also be difficult at times, both physically and emotionally.
The responsibility of looking after someone with cancer may mean that you ignore your own needs. You may feel as though your career, interests and health are no longer important or have to take second priority for a period of time.
It’s important to look after yourself as this will help you provide better quality of care over a longer period of time.
While you are busy looking after someone, you may find it difficult to look after your own health and wellbeing.
You may downplay your own health needs. It’s okay to acknowledge that you are not feeling well without comparing it to how the person with cancer is feeling.
Maintaining fitness and eating well can help carers cope with the physical and emotional demands of caring.
Ways to stay healthy
Eat healthy meals and snacks – If the person has long treatment sessions or appointments, or is in hospital, you may need to bring healthy foods and drinks from home. Avoid snacks that are high in added fats, sugars and salt, such as chips, biscuits and chocolate.
Get enough sleep and rest – Tiredness and exhaustion often make everything seem harder. If your sleep is disrupted by your caring responsibilities, try to grab a few minutes’ rest throughout the day whenever the opportunity comes up.
Avoid using alcohol or cigarettes to relax – These may seem to help for a short time, but they contribute to other problems. If you smoke, call the Quitline on 13 7848 to talk to an adviser and request a free Quit Pack.
Be active for 30 minutes each day – This can increase your energy levels, help you sleep better and improve your mood. If you can leave the house, a walk, run or swim may help. A stationary exercise bike, a yoga/meditation mat or an online program can allow you to exercise at home. Doing any physical activity is better than none.
Have regular check-ups – It’s important to maintain regular visits to your GP, dentist, optometrist and other health professionals. See your GP if you notice changes in your sleep patterns, weight or mood.
Stay in touch with friends and family – Maintaining relationships can help you feel connected to others, reduce stress and provide an opportunity to talk about topics aside from your role as a carer.
Caring for someone with cancer is not always easy or satisfying. Many carers say they feel overburdened and resentful. The following strategies may help you cope.
Focus on the value of caring – Acknowledging the benefits of caring may help you feel better. These may include learning new skills, strengthening your relationship as you demonstrate your love, and gaining satisfaction from providing care to someone in need.
Set boundaries and limits – Outline what you are comfortable helping with, the level of workload you can manage, and what your own needs are. For example, if you find it difficult to wash or provide intimate care to the person you are looking after, consider organising regular visits from a care worker. You are allowed to say no.
Organise your time – Use your phone or a diary to keep track of information and appointments, and to help you prioritise your weekly tasks and activities.
Draw on spirituality – Some people find meaning and comfort in their religion, faith and spiritual beliefs. Others may experience spirituality more generally. A cancer diagnosis can challenge the beliefs of some people. It may help to talk about your feelings with a spiritual care practitioner, religious leader or counsellor.
Deal with uncertainty – When the person you care for is having treatment, life may seem less predictable and it may be hard to plan ahead. Carers often find this uncertainty stressful and feel that their life is in limbo. You may find it easier to cope if you focus on those things you can control right now. Letting go of what you cannot control leaves you with more energy and mental capacity.
Keep a journal – Writing down what has been happening may allow you to release your worries or frustrations. Reading back through journal entries can provide perspective – you may see that some days are better than others. It also lets you reflect on how you’re coping and identify areas you need assistance with.
Look for reliable information – It may help to learn more about cancer and possible treatment options. Going with the person to medical appointments can give you a better understanding of the treatment plan.
If caring becomes too much
You might find providing care difficult. It may be that the physical demands are becoming too much, especially if you are older or have your own health issues. Perhaps you know you need support but don’t want to disappoint the person you’re caring for.
You could also find that caring is emotionally exhausting. You may find it helpful to see a counsellor. They may help you see ways to make caring more
manageable. Your GP can refer you to a counsellor. Cancer Council SA operates a free counselling service, call 13 11 20 for more information. You can also access the Carer Gateway Counselling Service or by calling them on 1800 422 737. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
It can be difficult to ask for and accept assistance, but if you seem to be coping, others may not realise you need help. Family and friends may be waiting for you to ask because they don’t know how to offer or fear they will be intruding or disturbing you. Let them know their support is appreciated and that they’re not interfering.
Asking for help is not a sign of failure; it may allow you to spend more time with the person you’re caring for or to take a break.
You may want to hold a family meeting to work out how everyone can help and then prepare a roster. This lets family and friends know exactly what help you need and when you would like it. It means others don’t have to guess what they can do to help. Tasks that can be done by or shared with others include:
- household chores such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, shopping, gardening or looking after pets
- driving the person with cancer to appointments and/or attending appointments with them
- picking up children from school or other activities
- looking up information
- keeping others updated
- staying with the person you care for while you take a break.
Respite care allows carers to have a break. It may be provided at home, in a residential care facility (such as an aged care facility) and, in some cases, in a hospital or palliative care unit (hospice). It can be for a couple of hours, overnight or a few days. You can access respite care for any reason, including:
- taking time out to access health care for yourself
- visiting friends or other family members
- catching up on some sleep at home
- running errands, such as grocery shopping
- attending events, such as a school assembly or a wedding.
Some carers don’t access respite care because they feel guilty or anxious about leaving the person they are caring for. The service exists because caring can be difficult and may affect your wellbeing. By taking a break, you will probably find that you can be more effective in your caring role. It also gives the person you are caring for an opportunity to interact with other people.
Many people who care for someone with cancer are also employed. They may work full-time, part-time, casually or have their own business. Working carers often have to balance the needs of the person they are caring for with the demands of their job. You may also be caring for your own family.
Your decision to continue working will probably depend on several factors, including:
- how unwell the person with cancer is
- what your caring and work duties involve
- your family situation
- the amount of help or respite care available
- your finances and whether you need to earn an income
- whether the situation is likely to be temporary or long term
- what will give you peace of mind.
Caring can impact on your job in various ways. It may affect your work hours, what you can achieve at work, how much time off you need, your concentration, and your emotional and physical wellbeing.
Before making decisions about work, talk to your employer about your caring responsibilities. They may be able to support you with flexible working arrangements.
To find out more about working while caring for someone, visit carergateway.gov.au/help-advice/working-while-caring.
Many people find that the most challenging time in their caring role is when the need for care finishes. You could feel a bit lost or not needed anymore. If the person has recovered, they may appear to have forgotten how much time and effort you gave. This can be hurtful, but they probably don’t realise how you are feeling.
You may be surprised that the person who has had cancer does not seem happy or relieved that they have been given good news. The end of treatment can actually be a difficult time emotionally, and cancer survivors sometimes experience depression as they adjust to the “new normal”. It is important to communicate openly about how you are both feeling.
You may expect that you’ll slip back into day-to-day life as it was before you took on the caring role, but this may not be straightforward. You might feel you are still waiting for the next setback. Your life may also have changed. Going back to work or resuming other responsibilities can be overwhelming. Do things at your own pace and give yourself time to adjust. You might be able to return to work part-time or take on fewer responsibilities.
Talking about your feelings with someone you trust can help. Studies show that caring often brings changes in life philosophy and relationships, and personal growth. Many people find these changes are rewarding and life-changing, but it’s not a positive experience for everyone. You may need time to reflect on what has happened and what it has meant to you.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed September 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Laura Kirsten, Principal Clinical Psychologist, Nepean Cancer Care Centre, NSW; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Anne Booms, Nurse Practitioner – Supportive and Palliative Care, Icon Cancer Centre Midland, WA; Dr Erica Cameron-Taylor, Staff Specialist, Department of Palliative Care, Mercy Hospice, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Tracey Gardner, Senior Psychologist, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council Queensland; Louise Good, Cancer Nurse Consultant, WA; Verity Jausnik, Senior Policy Officer, Carers Australia; David Larkin, Cancer Supportive Care Manager, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital and Health Service, ACT; Kate Martin, Consumer; John McMath, Consumer; Simone Noelker, Physiotherapist and Wellness Centre Coordinator, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; Tara Redemski, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Dean Rowe, Consumer; Chris Sibthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.