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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.

It’s important to look after yourself. While you are busy looking after someone, you may downplay 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 okay to acknowledge that you are not feeling well, without comparing it to how the person with cancer is feeling. Think about what you are comfortable helping with, the level of workload you can manage, and what your own needs are. You are allowed to say no.

If caring becomes too much

You might find providing care challenging. It may be that the physical demands are becoming too much, especially if you are older, have your own health issues, or are caring for other people.

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 or local Cancer Council can refer you to a counsellor. You can also try the Carer Gateway Counselling Service by calling 1800 422 737. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Asking others for help

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 help or fear they will be intruding or disturbing you. Let them know their support is appreciated and that they’re not interfering.

Sharing the caring role – 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. Many carers say they feel  overburdened and resentful. Sharing the caring role with other people can ensure that the person with cancer gets the necessary support they need without overloading you.

How to share tasks – You may want to hold a meeting to work out how everyone can help and then prepare a roster. Or you could share a list of tasks through a website such as Gather My Crew. 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, mowing the lawn 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
  • keeping others updated
  • staying with the person you care for while you take a break.

I decided I had to swim daily. I had a roster of friends who looked after my wife for an hour every morning.” ROB

Taking a break (respite care)

Respite care lets carers have a break. You may feel you need respite care for a couple of hours, overnight or for several days. You can use respite care for any reason, such as visiting friends or family members, catching up on sleep, or attending an event such as a wedding.

Why – Some carers don’t arrange respite care because they feel guilty or concerned about leaving the person they are caring for. But by taking a break, you will probably find that you can continue your caring role with more energy and enthusiasm. It also gives the person you are caring for an opportunity to interact with other people.

Where – Respite care can sometimes be given at home, or the person you are caring for may be admitted to a respite care centre, residential aged care facility or, in some cases, a hospital or palliative care unit (hospice).

How – It’s a good idea to start looking into respite care before you need it. Talk to your doctor or social worker about what services are available where you live and how you can access them. Carer Gateway provides information on respite options, including emergency respite. For more information, visit the Carer Gateway or call them on 1800 422 737.

Cost – You may have to pay part or all of the cost of respite care. Fees will depend on the care provider, whether the care is subsidised by the government, how long the care is for, and the type of care required.

The social worker helped my husband and me talk about difficult and confronting issues. The respite care was also a welcome relief and helped me remain strong.” JANINE

Working while caring

Many carers also work. Your caring duties and your job may both be important and necessary parts of your life. But it may be difficult to balance the demands of caring, family and work.

Caring can impact 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. Your decision to continue working will probably depend on several things, including:

  • how unwell the person with cancer is
  • what your caring and work duties involve
  • your family situation
  • the amount of help available from family and friends or respite care
  • your finances and whether you need to earn an income
  • your leave entitlements
  • whether the need for care is likely to be temporary or long term
  • what will give you peace of mind.

Before changing your working arrangements, talk with your employer, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counsellor, family or friends. You may be able to rearrange your working hours, take carer’s leave or make other flexible working arrangements. You can ask the health care team for a letter of support for your workplace. To find out more about working while caring, visit the Carer Gateway.

Depending on where you live, Cancer Council may be able to connect you with a human resources (HR) professional or employment lawyer to provide information and advice about how to manage your work and caring responsibilities. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out more.

Download our ‘Cancer, Work & You’ booklet

Download our ‘Cancer Care and Your Rights’ booklet

Keeping healthy

Looking after your health can help you cope with the demands of caring, and provide better care for longer. People with cancer often need support for a long time, so it’s important to find ways to support your wellbeing.

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.

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.

Be active for 30 minutes each day – Research shows that regular physical activity can help with feelings of anger, stress, anxiety and depression. It can also help boost your energy levels and improve sleep. 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. Even a brisk walk around the block offers benefits.

Organise your time – Use your phone or a diary to help you keep track of appointments, and prioritise your tasks and activities.

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

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. Take part in any cancer screening programs you’re eligible for.

Take time for yourself – Make time each day to do a hobby or activity that you find enjoyable and relaxing. Respite care is available for short or longer periods and may give you the break you need. Don’t underestimate the emotional impact of supporting someone through cancer – you need to look after your own health if you’re going to give support.

Avoid using alcohol, cigarettes or vapes to relax – These may seem to help for a short time,  but they contribute to other problems. If you smoke or vape, call the Quitline on 13 7848 for advice and support tailored to your situation. Talk to your GP if you need support managing your anxiety.

When your caring role ends

Many people find it challenging when the need for care finishes. You could feel a bit lost or no longer needed. If the person has recovered, they may appear to have forgotten how much you did. This can be hurtful, but they probably don’t realise how you’re feeling.

How the person may feel – You may be surprised that the person who had cancer does not  seem happy or relieved that they have been given good news. The end of treatment can 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.

Take the time you need – 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.

Share your feelings – 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 rewarding, but it’s not always positive. You may need time to reflect on what has happened and what it has meant to you.

If the person you are caring for has been diagnosed with advanced cancer, the caring role may be different. See the Caring for someone with advanced cancer section.

Featured resource

Caring for Someone with Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Alison White, Palliative Medicine Specialist, Royal Perth Hospital, WA; Tracey Bilson, Consumer; Louise Dillon, Consumer; Louise Durham, Nurse Practitioner, Palliative Care Outpatients, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Katrina Elias, Carers Program, South Western Sydney Local Health District, NSW Health, NSW; Jessica Elliott, Social Worker, Youth Cancer Services, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Brendan Myhill, Social Worker and Bereavement Research Officer, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; Penny Neller, Project Coordinator, National Palliative Care Projects, Australian Centre for Health Law Research, Queensland University of Technology, QLD; Olivia Palac, Acting Assistant Director, Occupational Therapy, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Nicole Rampton, Advanced Occupational Therapist, Cancer Services, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Shirley Roberts, Nurse Consultant, Medical Oncology, Northern Adelaide Cancer Centre, SA; Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, Specialist General Practitioner, and UNSW Research Fellow, NSW; Kathleen Wilkins, Consumer; Helen Zahra, Carers Program, South Western Sydney Local Health District, NSW Health, NSW.

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