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Caring for someone with cancer

Caring for yourself

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

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 the person with cancer. 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.

Your GP can refer you to a counsellor, who may help you see ways to make caring more manageable.

You can also try the free  Carer Gateway Counselling Service by calling 1800 422 737 or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support.

Speak to a trusted cancer nurse

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. Let family and friends 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. 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
  • 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 lets carers have a break. You can use respite care for any amount of time and any reason, such as visiting friends or family members, catching up on sleep, or attending an event such as a wedding.

Why – 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 – 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.

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.

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 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 while caring can 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 or respite care available
  • your finances and whether you need to earn an income
  • your leave entitlements
  • whether the situation is likely to be temporary or long term
  • what will give you peace of mind.

Before making decisions about work, talk to your employer. They may be able to support you with flexible working arrangements.

Learn more

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.

The following can help you cope with the physical and emotional demands of caring:

  • Eat healthy meals and snacks
  • Stay in touch with friends and family
  • Be active for 30 minutes each day 
  • Organise your time
  • Get enough sleep and rest 
  • Have regular check-ups for your health
  • Take time for yourself
  • Avoid using alcohol, cigarettes or vapes to relax 

When your caring role ends

Many people find that the most challenging time in their caring role is when the need for care finishes. 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.

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.

You may expect that you’ll slip back into day-to-day life as it was before you took your caring role, but this may not be straightforward. Do things at your own pace and give yourself time to adjust.

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.

Caring for Someone with Cancer

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Caring for Someone with Cancer (Plain English)

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