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Caring for someone with cancer


How you might feel

Page last updated: January 2024

The information on this webpage was adapted from Caring for Someone with Cancer - A guide for family and friends who provide care and support (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in January 2024.

Expert content reviewers:

This content has been developed by Cancer Council NSW with thanks to the following 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


It's common for carers to experience a range of feelings about their new role. Often these emotions are similar to those experienced by the person with cancer – some studies show that carers can have even higher levels of distress.

It can take time to adjust to the changes that becoming a carer brings. It’s important to give yourself permission to take care of your own emotional wellbeing. If you have a history of anxiety or depression, this could make you more vulnerable now. 

A sense of satisfaction

While caring for someone with cancer can be challenging at times, it can also be rewarding.

Providing support can bring a sense of satisfaction, achievement and personal growth. Being there for them and helping, even in small ways, can strengthen your relationship and create lasting memories.

You may not always feel a sense of satisfaction when you’re caring for someone on a day-to-day basis. Some people find that when their caring role ends, they're able to reflect on the positive parts of their experience.

Common reactions

There is no right or wrong way to feel. Although everyone is different, many carers find it reassuring to know that their feelings are a normal reaction to the demands of the role.

Fear and anxiety

Cancer treatments and outcomes have dramatically improved in recent years, but caring for someone with cancer can still be frightening and overwhelming.

It’s natural to worry about the treatment, side effects, test results and the long-term outcome, as well as the impact that the diagnosis will have on your family, work and other responsibilities.

Stress

Looking after someone with cancer can be stressful. As well as generally feeling tired and unwell, physical symptoms of stress can include:

  • trouble sleeping
  • headaches
  • tense muscles
  • high blood pressure
  • upset stomach
  • changes in appetite
  • heart palpitations
  • feeling generally tired and unwell.

Emotional symptoms may include:

  • feeling overwhelmed or drained
  • being irritable or moody
  • feeling agitated
  • having racing thoughts
  • losing confidence in yourself.

It’s common for carers to say they feel continually out of control or under extreme pressure. If stress is ongoing, it can affect the way you react to people around you, and could lead to exhaustion and burnout.

Anger and frustration

You may feel angry or frustrated for many reasons, including:

  • having to be the carer and take on extra responsibilities
  • navigating a complex and confusing health care system
  • believing that family and friends could do more to help
  • having short-term and long-term plans disrupted
  • a shift in the nature of your relationship
  • not sleeping well
  • having little or no time for activities you used to enjoy
  • dealing with the emotions of the person with cancer
  • trying to juggle caring with other family responsibilities or paid work
  • feeling that the person you’re caring for does not seem to really appreciate the hard work and sacrifices you’re making.

Guilt

Guilt is one of the most common emotions that carers experience. Some carers have said they feel guilty about:

  • feeling angry and resentful
  • taking a break from caring (or even just wanting to)
  • being well, while the person they are caring for is sick
  • not being able to make the person better (even though this is unrealistic)
  • saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time
  • having to care for someone they do not really like
  • not doing enough or feeling they aren’t doing a perfect job as a carer. 

Loneliness

It's easy to become isolated or feel lonely as a carer. You may feel too busy or guilty to socialise or maintain contact with friends and family. People may visit you less often because they think you have too much to do or they don’t know what to say.

Some people are uncomfortable being around someone who is ill. Maybe you did a lot with the person who has cancer and you miss this special time.

Even if you have many people to support you, you can still feel alone and isolated. You may feel that no-one quite understands what you are going through. This is a common reaction. Joining a support group may help.

Depression

Feeling down or sad after someone you love is diagnosed with cancer is common. It’s a natural response to loss and disappointment, and usually lasts a short time without severely affecting your life.

If you have continued feelings of sadness for several weeks, have trouble getting up in the morning, and have lost interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy, you may be experiencing depression.

Research shows that depression is common among carers. There are a number of ways to manage depression. Talk to your health care team about your options or visit Beyond Blue for more information.

Loss and grief

Many people associate loss and grief with dying, but it can also be felt when you are caring for someone. It’s natural to stop enjoying your regular activities or miss activities you can no longer do, such as work, exercise, socialising or volunteering.

It is normal to feel both grief for the 'normal' you have lost and the need to adjust to a 'new normal'.

As a carer, you may feel that your relationship with the person you are caring for has changed. Changes in roles and taking on new responsibilities can cause stress between you and the person you’re caring for.

 

Finding ways to cope

It may feel hard to find the time or energy to look after your own emotional wellbeing. These simple strategies may help you cope and feel more in control:

  • Clear your mind - relaxation and meditation techniques can help carers maintain their energy levels and improve their quality of life. You could try complementary therapies.
  • Connect with others - you can share your thoughts and experiences with other carers through support groups. This can be by phone, in person or online. 
  • Be kind to yourself - no-one is a 'perfect' carer. Try to avoid using the words 'should' or 'must' and accept that you are doing the best you can. 
  • Seek support - if at any stage you feel overwhelmed, speak to your GP, as counselling or medicine – even for a short time – may help. You may be referred to a psychologist. 
  • Draw on spirituality – Some people find comfort in spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation, quiet contemplation or talking with a spiritual care practitioner.
  • Deal with uncertainty – Focus on the things you can control right now. Letting go of what you cannot control leaves you with more energy and mental capacity.
  • Get creative – Try keeping a journal. Looking back through journal entries can give some perspective – you may see that some days are better than others.
  • Find out what to expect – It may help to learn more about the cancer and treatment options. 

Caring for Someone with Cancer

Download our Caring for Someone with Cancer booklet to learn more

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Caring for Someone with Cancer (Plain English)

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