Caring for yourself

Monday 1 December, 2014

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On this page: Looking after yourself | Keeping healthy | Asking others for help | Ways to cope | Taking a break (respite care) | Working while caring | Key points

Many carers say that providing care can affect their relationships, career, finances and health and wellbeing. Caring can be rewarding, but many carers also find it difficult at times, both physically and emotionally. 

Looking after yourself

The responsibility of attending to the needs of the person you’re caring for may mean that you neglect your own needs. Some carers have said they felt like they lost their identity when caring. It may feel as though your career, interests and health are no longer important or have to take second priority.

Looking after yourself will help you provide better quality of care to the person you care for over a longer period of time.

Keeping healthy

As carers are busy looking after someone else, they can find it difficult to find time to look after their own health and wellbeing.

When they do notice that they’re not feeling well, they might downplay their own health needs. You can acknowledge that you are not feeling well without comparing it to how the person with cancer is feeling.

Maintaining fitness and eating well will help carers more easily cope with the physical demands of caring. Getting enough sleep will also give you more energy.

Ways to look after yourself
  • Make time for a break every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes.
  • Plan breaks or respite care in advance, so you can arrange some time for yourself.
  • Stay involved in activities you enjoy. It’s a good stress relief, and will give you something else to think and talk about aside from caring.
  • Let friends or family know that you want to chat about things other than caring.
  • Ask family and friends to help you so you can have regular breaks. See below.
  • Try not to hold in how you feel about caring, particularly if you are angry or frustrated. You may want to share how you’re feeling with friends or family members.
  • Be kind to yourself and ensure your expectations are reasonable.
Ways to stay healthy
  • Eat healthy meals and snacks. If the person you care for has long appointments or is in hospital, you may need to bring healthy food from home.
  • Try to get enough sleep and rest. Tiredness and exhaustion often make everything seem harder. Have regular check-ups with your own doctor.
  • Avoid using alcohol or cigarettes to relax. These may make you feel better for a short time, but they contribute to other problems.
  • Exercise for 15–30 minutes each day. This can increase your energy levels, help you sleep better and improve your mood. If you can leave the house, a walk, run or swim may help. An exercise bike or a yoga/ meditation mat can allow you to exercise at home.
  • See a doctor if you notice changes in your health such as fatigue, sleep problems, weight changes and depression.

Asking others for help

Asking for and accepting assistance is sometimes difficult. You may find it hard to let others know what help you need, but if you seem to be coping, family and friends may not realise you need help. They may be waiting for you to ask for help because they don’t know how to offer or fear they will be intruding or disturbing you. Let them know their help is appreciated and that it’s not an interference. Asking for help is not a sign of failure, and it may relieve some pressure and allow you to spend time with the person you’re caring for.

You may want to hold a family meeting to discuss how everyone can help. Tasks that can be done by or shared with others include:

  • doing household chores such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, shopping or gardening
  • 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
  • sitting and talking with the person you care for while you take a break.
"At first, I didn't ask for help, because I didn't want to bother anyone. I see caring as my duty; I have to do it. I now realise people genuinely want to help. They need my help to show them how." – Gavin

Ways to cope

Caring for someone with cancer is not always easy or satisfying. Many carers say they feel overburdened and resentful. The following strategies may help you cope:

Focus on the value of caring

Acknowledging the rewards of caring may help you feel better. These include learning new skills, strengthening your relationship as you demonstrate your love and commitment, and satisfaction from providing care to someone in need.

Set boundaries and limits

Outline what you are comfortable helping with, the level of workload you can manage, and what your own needs are. For example, if you find it uncomfortable or are physically unable to wash or provide intimate care to the person you care for, look at alternatives such as regular visits from a community nurse.

Organise your time

It may not be possible to do everything you want to do. You will need to prioritise your weekly tasks and activities. You may want to use a diary to keep track of information and appointments.

Keep a journal

Writing down what has been happening allows some carers to release their worries or frustrations. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on how they’re coping and identify areas they need assistance with. Reading back through journal entries can give carers some perspective – you may notice that some days are better than others.

Don’t expect to be perfect

Sometimes you may feel like you could have done something differently or handled a situation better. Allow yourself to not be perfect. Each new day brings a fresh start and a chance to remind yourself that you are doing your best.

Deal with uncertainty

When the person you care for is having treatment, life may seem less predictable. You may have to put some plans on hold because you are not sure what is ahead. Carers often find this uncertainty stressful. You may find it easier to cope if you focus on things you can control.

You may be able to schedule doctors’ visits so you can accompany the person you’re caring for. It may also help to learn more about cancer and possible treatment options so you feel like you have a better understanding of what is happening.

If caring becomes too much

You might find providing care too difficult, particularly if the person you’re caring for insists you do all the caring rather than involving others.

Perhaps you know you need support but don’t want to disappoint them. Consider seeing a professional counsellor, either alone or with the person you are caring for. The counsellor may be able to discuss options to make caring more manageable.

Ask your GP or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information on how to get a referral to a counsellor. 

Taking a break (respite care)

Respite care allows carers to have a break from their caring role. Respite can be given at home, in a respite care centre or, in some cases, a hospital or hospice.

Respite care can be for a couple of hours, overnight or a few days. You can access respite care for any reason, including to:

  • take time out to access health care for yourself
  • visit friends or other family members
  • catch up on some sleep at home
  • run errands, such as grocery shopping
  • attend 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. However, the service is there because caring can be a difficult role and can affect your wellbeing. By taking a break, you will probably find that you can continue your caring role more effectively.

Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centres, located across Australia, provide free and confidential information on local carer support services and respite options. Call 1800 052 222 during business hours. Call 1800 059 059 for emergency respite support outside standard business hours. 

"I cannot speak highly enough of the Commonwealth emergency respite services for carers. They played a very important role in my case." – Geoff

Working while caring

Many people who care for someone with cancer are also employed. They may work full-time, part-time, casually or have their own business. Working carers often have to balance the needs of the person they are caring for with the demands of the workplace. If the person with cancer does not work and is dependent on you, there may be financial pressure on you to continue earning an income.

Your decision to continue working will probably depend on:

  • how unwell the person with cancer is
  • what your caring and work duties involve
  • the amount of help or respite care available
  • your finances
  • what will give you peace of mind.

Before making changes to your working arrangements, talk over your thoughts with your employer, family and friends. You can also contact the Carers Association in your state or territory for support and counselling. Visit or call 1800 242 636.

To find out more about working while caring for someone, see or contact your local Carers Association. See Cancer, Work and You and Cancer Care and Your Rightsor call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Key points

  • Caring can be physically and emotionally demanding.
  • Looking after your own wellbeing can relieve stress and tiredness, and reduce feelings of frustration and isolation.
  • You may feel that your health and interests are second priority to the person with cancer. Try to take time for yourself every day, even if it’s only a short amount of time.
  • Carers often forget to look after their own health. Try to eat well, get some exercise, rest and keep up your regular medical check-ups.
  • Talk to your doctor about any health concerns, especially if you are feeling depressed.
  • Focusing on the value of your caring role can make you feel more satisfied.
  • Organise your time wisely and try to concentrate on one task at a time. Using a diary and getting help from others can relieve some of the pressure.
  • Life can be unpredictable and uncertain at times. Learning more about the condition of the person you are caring for may help you feel more in control.
  • Organise respite care so you can have a break from your caring duties.

Reviewed by: Maxine Rosenfield, Counsellor, Private Practice, NSW; Joan Bartlett, Consumer; Julie Butterfield, Consumer; Julie Hill, Telephone Support Group Coordinator, Cancer Council NSW; Anna Lovitt, Senior Social Worker – Oncology, W.P. Holman Clinic, TAS; Carolina Simpson, Policy and Development Officer, Carers NSW; and Helen Tayler, Social Worker/Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community Health Centre, ACT. We would also like to thank the health professionals and consumers who have worked on previous editions of this title.

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