The caring approach

Being a carer for someone with cancer can be rewarding, exhausting, uplifting, and frustrating — sometimes all on the same day. 

If you are helping a family member or friend through cancer, the pressure is often on you to step up to the mark, be strong and make sure that the patient and everyone around them feels supported – even if that pressure is self-imposed. 

Knowing how to navigate the experience, without losing sight of your own wellbeing, is very important.

How you can provide emotional care

As an informal carer — that’s someone caring for a family member or friend — just being there counts as emotional support. This might be as simple as taking the time to listen to their feelings, worries and concerns.

Experts recommend being an active, non-judgemental listenerii. That means truly listening to what’s being said, rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next. Just being there and listening can help relieve the burden that the person is feeling.

It’s also important to let the person be sad and cry if they want to. It’s not your job to keep things happy all the time.

People undergoing cancer treatment can experience a range of emotions. They might be positive and relieved that their treatment has started but can also be fearful, angry and scared. Sometimes their side-effects may make them behave in ways that are unusual  especially towards those closest to them.  Understanding why this is happening may help you realise it’s nothing personal, and this you can then  create strategies to deal with the more difficult times.

Talk about the hard stuff

Many of us find it hard to know what to say even to those closest to us when they are ill, and it’s common to be worried that you might upset someone by saying the wrong thing. 

While there’s no official handbook on what to say to people with cancer, there are a few common themes that are best avoided, such as: 

  • Telling someone that they need to stay strong and positive
  • Talking about someone else you know who has beaten cancer
  • Asking too many personal questions
  • Not talking about the situation at all

If you don’t know where to start, ask if there’s something they would like to talk about. 

Ask open questions, such as: what has today been like for you? Or, tell me how your week has been?

Remember they may not want to talk at all. And that’s ok. Let them know you’re ready when they are. 

Take care of yourself

Caring can be demanding, tiring and stressful work. You can become so caught up in supporting someone else that you put your own wellbeing on the backburner. 

Don’t feel guilty when you are not with the person you’re caring for. To be an empathetic and effective carer you need to look after yourself too. 

Use this checklist as a starting point for your own self-care.

  • Be kind to yourself. This is a stressful time for you, so forgive yourself for any feelings of despair or exasperation. You’re doing a great job
  • Take time out. Meet a friend for a coffee, go to the gym, do something creative. Having a little “me time” will recharge your batteries
  • Practice good self-careiii. Remember to eat healthily, keep hydrated, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Relax in any way that suits you — perhaps take a bath or read a book
  • Assemble a team of supporters so there’s someone who can step in when you need a break or be on hand for a chat when you’re feeling you need assistance
  • Seek out a support group of fellow carers either in your local area or online
  • Consider counselling. Having a safe space to talk about your feelings is not a sign of weakness
  • Don’t expect perfection. You’re human, and the person you are caring for knows this

Getting help with practical care

Looking after someone who is sick often means taking sole responsibility for the upkeep of the home and managing all family affairs.

You’ll also be the one who provides transport, shops, cooks, looks after family as well as any new regular duties such as administering medication, going to medical appointments, helping with personal care and working out finances. 

It’s important to ask for and accept offers of help. You are not a superhero. When people say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” tell them yes, there is. Ask them to cook a meal, cut the grass, pick up some groceries, or take the dog for a walk. 

If you are struggling on a practical or financial level, find out what resources are provided locally. You may be eligible for help with cooking and cleaning services, assistance with shopping, transport, respite care, and other tailored support packages. 

Some useful places to start include Macmillan Cancer Support and Carer Support UK or search online for support in your local area using the Cancer Care Map.

Understanding medical care options

As a carer you’re on both teams — patient and healthcare crew. You’re going to get a crash course in processes and treatments you were once blissfully unaware existed, and it’s important that you have a good understanding of what goes on at appointments. 

These tips may help you feel you’re keeping control of the situation.

  • Do some research so you can ask informed questions. Consult reliable sources such as the GenesisCare website, or government cancer health websites and organisations to see what treatments are available and what is involved
  • Note down any questions both you and the person you’re caring for have, so you don’t get “appointment amnesia” and forget everything you wanted to ask. For suggestions, see our FAQ to ensure you get the answers you need
  • Record any recent changes in the person’s condition or symptoms so you can tell the doctor about them
  • Take notes during appointments or ask if you can record the conversation on your phone
  • Write down any specific instructions and ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand
  • Ask what you should be watching out for, and what to do if you notice changes

Most importantly, don’t underestimate the support you’re providing! Even by reading this, it shows you care and are looking to do the best you can for your friend or loved one.