Written by Olawoyin Mustapha
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Micheal Guerrera
The role of a cancer caregiver is not an easy one. Attending to the physical, emotional, and sometimes, spiritual needs of a cancer patient may seem incredibly difficult —at least without neglecting your own personal needs. However, with the right information, and cancer caregiver support, it’s possible to lighten the load. It is possible to take care of both the patient and yourself.
We compiled the top tips on how to be a good cancer caregiver, according to some experienced caregivers.
1. Keep good records
Caregivers of cancer patients need a lot of solid organization, from keeping medical records to pill prescriptions to doctor appointments.
“One thing I did was get a binder and keep doctor appointments, test results, treatment options, and pathology reports,” said Linda Hoetger, who cares for her husband with prostate cancer in Ohio. “This [was] very helpful because…your memory as a caregiver may be a little cloudy. If you have questions and need answers, [it’s] helpful to write them down in there as well. Having a smartphone or voice recorder at the doctor appointments is also great.”
Good record-keeping reduces stress on cancer caregivers and saves valuable time, said Caroline Tapp-McDougall, one of North America's foremost experts on caregiving and the author of The Complete Guide For Family Caregivers.
“Organize patient records, medications and timing, daily progress, [and] household matters,” advises Tapp-McDougall. “This saves time and money, [prevents] confusion, and allows you to monitor changes and better remember things.”
2. Communicate Openly
Good communication is everything in cancer caregiving, providing the patient with comfort, kindness, and at times, distraction. Sharing how you feel during discussions will give them the freedom to open up to you.
“You may not want to, or know how to, talk about certain things,” said Lise Leblanc, author of Conscious Caregiving Guide. “Perhaps you think you have to be strong all the time and be the rock. But if you won’t talk about what you’re going through, your loved one may not feel safe talking to you, either.”
It’s important to provide a safe space in which the person you’re caring for feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings without a second thought. “Opening up to your loved one about how you’re really doing gives them the sense that they are safe in sharing their true thoughts and feelings with you,” added Leblanc.
3. Don't be afraid to ask for help
Everyone needs help sometimes. Many caregivers of cancer patients make the mistake of trying to do it all alone. You might be able to at first, but you’ll soon find this simply isn’t sustainable.
You can always ask for help from friends, family and cancer caregiver support groups. “It is important to have the strength to ask for help. A support system is essential, because one person cannot do it all, and no one is expecting you to,” said Anthena Casamento, a caregiver at ZERO—The End of Prostate Cancer, a nonprofit organization in Virginia. “A family member can help arrange appointments, assist with nursing schedules, sort out grocery/medication supply deliveries, and help you, the caregiver, manage and maintain your own life and your family’s needs as well.”
4. Practice self care
Don’t put your own needs on the backburner. “Make sure you take time for yourself to avoid caregiver burnout,” said Hoetger.
According to WebMd, caregiver burnout “is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion,” and the only prevention is self-care. Odds are, the person you’re caring for will completely understand if you need to take some time to yourself.
“When your loved ones see you taking care of your needs, it may ease their mind and their guilt about being a burden on you,” says Leblac. “Start by remembering that there is no such thing as a perfect caregiver. Cut yourself some slack and approach this journey with patience, self-compassion, and a heavy dose of self-care.”
A hands-on tip from Leblac is to write at least 10 activities that feel like self-care to you, then fold each and put them in a jar. “When you are having a challenging moment, choose one from your jar as a reminder of things you can do to take better care of yourself,” she said. “Think of it as your self-care prescription bottle.”
5. Be patient
A lot of patience is required to be a good caregiver to someone with cancer. Cancer comes with certain behavioral changes like mood swings, anger, frustration, and fatigue, among others. As a caregiver, you may have to deal with these changes during your interactions.
“Being a caregiver definitely takes strength and patience,” said Hoetger. “When you hear those words [that a loved one has cancer], you need to absorb what you heard and cope with the news—and then be able to take care of the cancer patient’s needs,” she says.
Through it all, it’s important to show your loved ones going through cancer that you care about them. This could ultimately have a lasting positive impact on their recovery process that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.