What You Need to Know as a Cancer Caregiver

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Asking for help

Caregivers need a range of support services to stay healthy, be good caregivers, and stay in the caregiving role. But they often don’t know where to go for help or how to accept help.

Caregivers have been shown to have less distress and feel less burdened when they have social support. In fact, in one study, neither age or cancer stage affected the caregivers as much as having a network of people around them as a support system. Human connections can help you stay strong. Let people know what you need and ask for help. You cannot and should not try to be responsible for all the caregiving by yourself.

Can I count on family and friends for help?

You need to know who you can talk to and count on for help. Families facing cancer can become stronger. If family members do not offer help, or if you need more help than they can give you, you may be able to set up a circle of friends to help you. Church members, neighbors, and others may be willing to help. Include them in “family meetings.” Share information with them on the patient’s condition, needs, and care.

They may not be able to be a part of your loved one’s care every day, but perhaps a friend can come once a week for 3 or 4 hours so that you can take time for yourself. Someone else may be able to be there for an hour or 2 twice a week so you can go to a support group, shopping, or church. See the section below called “Can I take a vacation or time for myself?” for more ideas.

How do I take care of my children during this time?

If you have young children, you will need to figure out how to take care of them and their needs while you are caring for the person with cancer. Juggling the children’s schedules and trying to keep their lives as normal as possible often requires a great deal more help from friends and family members. As you are setting up care for the person with cancer, you may also need to tap into other parents and trusted neighbors for help with your children.

Children can sense stress in their family members and notice that there is less time for them. They may start to have trouble in school or act as they did when they were younger. Even though your time is limited, you will need to take time to check in with them to learn about their fears and concerns.

For more information, see our documents called Helping Children With Cancer in the Family: Dealing with Diagnosis and Helping Children With Cancer in the Family: Dealing With Treatment.

How do I get professional help?

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes by the responsibilities of care. But if it becomes a constant problem, you may need to see a mental health professional. Below is a list of serious signs of trouble. Get professional help if you:

  • Feel depressed, physically sick, or hopeless
  • Feel like hurting yourself or hurting or yelling at the people you care for
  • Depend too heavily on alcohol or recreational drugs
  • Fight with your spouse, children, stepchildren, or other family members and friends
  • No longer take care of yourself

If you decide you do need help, usually the first people to ask are members of the cancer care team. They might know more who works with people caring for those with cancer in your area. For more on recognizing when you or your loved ones may need help with emotional issues, see our document called Anxiety, Fear, and Depression.

Can I take a break or time for myself?

Most caregivers are hesitant to take a break from their caregiving responsibilities for a short time. In fact, most would probably feel guilty if they did this. But no one can be a caregiver every day, 24 hours a day, for many months and even years. Try to get out of the house and away from your loved one every day – even if it’s only to take a short walk or do some shopping. If you cannot leave them alone and don’t have friends or family to relieve you, you may want to look into professional help.

Respite care is the term used to describe short-term, temporary relief for those who are caring for family members who might otherwise need professional aid. Respite is a short break from the exhausting challenges of being a caregiver. It has been shown to help keep family caregivers healthy and improve their sense of wellbeing.

In most cases, the respite caregiver comes to the home and gets to know the patient, the family routine, and things like where medicines are stored. Sitter-companion services are one respite option. This is sometimes offered by local civic groups, church or religious groups, and other community organizations. A regular sitter-companion can provide friendly respite care for a few hours, once or twice a week. Be sure that the sitter-companion knows what to do if there is an emergency while the caregiver is gone.

Another type of respite uses a specialized, local facility where the patient may stay for a few days or even a few weeks.

Depending on the state, Medicaid or Medicare may help cover the costs. Also check with the patient’s health insurance to see what kind of respite help might be offered. See the “To learn more about caregiving and coping” section for groups that can help you find respite care where you live.

Are there tools to help the patient be more independent?

Assistive devices are tools that can help a person be more independent and make your job a little easier. You may also hear these called adaptive equipment or independent living aids. These tools can be something as simple as a cane, or as complex as a high-tech lift used to move the patient. Some other examples are walkers, wheelchairs, shower chairs, bath mats, grab bars, portable commodes, or urinals. Monitored medical response systems, webcams, and intercom systems are other options that can help some patients feel safer and give the caregiver peace of mind. But even little things like a pill organizer or large wall calendar can make things easier for everyone.

Think about the tasks the person with cancer wants or needs to do and how these devices may make it easier or safer. If you’re not sure, talk to your health care team or maybe an occupational therapist about tools that might help at home. These professionals can give you ideas for ways to help the patient. They can also help you find out where to buy or rent the assistive devices you need. And some may be covered by health insurance, too.


Last Medical Review: 02/14/2012
Last Revised: 03/23/2012