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Taking care of yourself

Effective caregivers must also be mindful of their own needs.

Taking care of someone with cancer can be totally absorbing, leaving you little time for anything else. But it’s important to take your own needs seriously as well.

However busy you are, there are little ways to make things easier on yourself. You might postpone small jobs, like doing the dishes, to read a book or take a nap. You may find other people to handle things that were part of your routine, like yard work or cooking. When friends or family members ask how they can help, don’t hesitate to say exactly what you need done. Hiring someone to help with housekeeping and laundry can also make a big difference.

And while the emotional and spiritual needs of the person you’re caring for may take precedence, you might want to talk to a counselor too.

Step by step

Cancer is a process — not just for the person who’s been diagnosed, but for you as well. But unlike caring for someone who is gradually growing older and more dependent, there’s rarely a predictable progression. So while you can prepare for some of the things you’ll experience as a caregiver, you have to be ready for the unexpected as well.

Getting ready

Before treatment begins, be sure your family member or friend knows you’re ready to provide all the care he or she needs. Line up your own support team as well, including people who will be there when you need them. It’s also a good idea to tell your employer that you may have to take some time off from work.

The treatment phase

When treatment begins, the task of managing everyday life is likely to fall on your shoulders along with the responsibility for providing the care that’s needed. The timeframe for treatment varies, depending on the type of cancer and the effectiveness of the initial therapy or combination of therapies. You’ll probably need to experiment to find the best ways to use the help family and friends want to provide. Make sure you take plenty of breaks — even though you may feel you have the energy to keep going.

Extended recovery

Some people with cancer are able to resume their normal activities quickly while others need longer. If the person you’re caring for needs an extended recovery period that absorbs a lot of your time and energy, you may feel as if your life has become structured around caregiving. Creating a routine that gets you out of the house can provide private space for you and opportunity to see other important people in your life.

Let your friends and family know how you’d like to spend your time together, whether it’s catching up on events you haven’t had time for or enjoying a real diversion like a movie or a hike.


One of the most difficult challenges of being a caregiver is helping to cope with a recurrence of cancer. No one is likely to know better than you how devastating this news is to the person who receives the diagnosis. And, on a personal level, you can’t avoid worrying what the recurrence will mean for the person you love, for the family, and for yourself.

It’s possible that the care you’re providing will be more acute and that the physical and emotional strains will be more intense. Rally the people who helped you before and involve others who may not have been part of your care circle the first time. Be prepared, too, for your relationship with the person you’re caring for to be different from what it was during the first bout with cancer.

Changing gears

Whether the person you’ve been caring for is again self-sufficient or needs more care than you can provide, giving up caretaking can be difficult. If you’ve been in that role for a long time, it may be hard to recapture the person you were before. Give yourself time to grieve for the changes taking place. Then focus on the things that you’ve wanted to do that you’ve been postponing and take the time to do them.

You may decide to ease the transition by reaching out to less experienced caregivers through message boards or mentoring programs. Not only will you be helping others through a difficult process, but you’ll have an opportunity to share the skills and experience you’ve gained through the process.

Finding a respite

When someone you love has cancer, your first instinct may be to take on as much responsibility as you can. But many former caregivers say that they wish they had not done so much by themselves.

Try taking care of yourself in small increments: thirty minutes of exercise, meeting a friend for coffee, watching your favorite TV show. You might want to exchange advice and share concerns with other caregivers through support groups or message boards.

Once you’re ready, start thinking about longer breaks — a day every week, or a week every six months. It may seem difficult at first to leave your responsibilities to someone else, but both you and the person you’re taking care of will feel refreshed from a little time apart.

Respite can come from a friend, a family member like a brother or sister, or an organization in your community. The National Respite Coalition provides lists of respite providers in each state.