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. 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. The following can help you cope with the physical and emotional demands of caring:
- Eat healthy meals and snacks
- Get enough sleep and rest
- Avoid using alcohol or cigarettes to relax
- Be active for 30 minutes each day
- Have regular check-ups for your health
- Stay in touch with friends and family.
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.
Your GP can refer you to a counsellor, who may help you see ways to make caring more manageable. You can also access the free Carer Gateway Counselling Service or call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you're under 25 years old, the Young Carers Network can provide information and support.
Speak to a trusted cancer nurse
Finding ways to cope
Caring for someone with cancer is not always easy or satisfying. Many carers say they feel overburdened and resentful.
Strategies to help you cope
- Focus on the value of caring – acknowledging the benefits of caring, such as strengthening your relationship, may help you feel better.
- Set boundaries and limits – outline what you are comfortable helping with, the level of workload you can manage, and what your own needs are. Remember that you are allowed to say no.
- Organise your time – use your phone or a diary to keep track of information and appointments, and help prioritise your weekly tasks.
- 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. 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 and 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.
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 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. 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.
Taking a break
Respite care allows carers to have a break. It may be provided at home, in a residential 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 can 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. Availability of respite care can vary depending on where you live and emergency respite is available.
Working while caring
Many carers are also employed. They may work full-time, part-time, casually, have their own business or care for their own families. Working carers often have to balance the needs of the person they are caring for with the demands of their job.
The decision to continue working while caring can 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. They may be able to support you with flexible working arrangements.
When your caring role ends
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, which can be hurtful.
You may expect that you’ll slip back into day-to-day life as it was before you became a carer, but this may not be straightforward. Going back to work or resuming other responsibilities can be overwhelming. Do things at your own pace and give yourself time to adjust.
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, 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.
Caring for Someone with Cancer
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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.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Caring for Someone with Cancer - A guide for family and friends who provide care and support (2020 edition). This webpage was last updated in November 2021.