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When a loved one has cancer

When caring for someone who has cancer, you need to be at your best—healthy and energetic. But long, busy days consumed by caring for your loved one and meeting the rest of your responsibilities (family, job, housekeeping and outside obligations) can leave you exhausted, overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Follow these guidelines to help cope with stress, repair energy and find hope.

  1. Learn about your loved one’s cancer. Fear of the unknown—How much worse will it get? What more will be required of me?—may haunt or depress you. So may more routine concerns about bathing, feeding or grooming. Tackle your anxieties by jotting down questions. Your loved one’s doctor, nurse or hospital social worker may be able to shed light on your concerns or steer you to resources. Or go online to the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov) and People Living With Cancer (www.plwc.org) for helpful information and links.
  2. Provide help when and where it’s needed. Depending on your loved one’s health, you may not have to do as much as you think. If you take the reins and handle everything, you may wear yourself out while making the care recipient feel powerless. Ask him or her what you can do to help. List tasks, then delegate to other friends and family members who want to pitch in.
  3. Let your loved one talk. Sometimes just listening is good enough. Shed the need to always provide solutions or pep talks. Remember, too, it’s normal for the person you’re caring for to have occasional down moments while fighting cancer. You don’t have to cajole him or her into a good mood. But if your loved one is consistently depressed, help find professional counseling.
  4. Take care of yourself. Make time for healthy meals and regular exercise. Keep up with your own health screenings and medical and dental appointments. Take breaks each day to unload stress. Listen to music. Have lunch with a friend. Go to church or a movie. Take a walk in the park. Don’t underestimate the power of restorative time. If you experience depression or anxiety that doesn’t lift, ask your healthcare provider for help.
  5. Take time for others you love. Your loved one’s cancer treatment can last months—while others you love continue to have birthdays, score winning goals and get promoted. Share in their joy, their happiness and their love. Give yourself permission to leave the person you’re tending to so you can attend a child’s basketball game or to celebrate a family anniversary or graduation. In showing love for others, you get love in return, which will bolster your spirits and stave off feelings of resentment.

When you’re caring for someone with cancer—whether it’s your child, spouse, sibling, parent or other relative or friend—be alert for signs you’re nearing burnout and take immediate steps to get the help you need.