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Your roles as a caregiver

You’ll act in many different capacities as you provide care.

Cancer touches more people than just those who receive the diagnosis. If your spouse, parent, child, or close friend has cancer, you may find yourself in the role of primary caregiver and advocate during treatment and, in some cases, through an extended recovery period. You’ll be indispensable in many ways — and among the most important is encouraging the person you love to be as independent as he or she can be.

Playing different roles

There are many ways to be an effective caregiver. You can provide emotional support. You can take over the routine tasks like shopping and paying the bills. You can be driver and companion during appointments and treatments. And, in some cases, you may help with some of the routine tasks of daily living, with giving medications, or taking care of other physical needs.

No two caregivers have exactly the same experience, so it can be difficult to know, as you begin, exactly what role you’ll be playing. And you should also be prepared for change as the needs of the person you’re helping evolve. You may find yourself once again simply spouse, child, or parent and no longer a caregiver. Or you may find that providing care assumes an increasingly large part of your life.

Resource and sounding board

One of the best ways to be an effective caregiver is to learn all you can about the particular type of cancer that the person you’re helping is confronting. You can begin your research with the websites of the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute or by calling their toll-free numbers. You can also investigate organizations focused on the specific cancer you’re interested in and the research arms of accredited cancer treatment facilities.

With what you’ve learned, you can serve as a more effective sounding board if your family member or friend is struggling to choose a course of action. However, you must also be prepared to have your preferences and even professional recommendations ignored. It’s essential to respect and support the choices the person with cancer makes, even if you and the medical team would have made a different decision.

Caregiver and advocate

One place where your help may be especially valuable is as a companion and advocate during the frequent meetings with doctors, nurses, technicians, and other specialists.

These appointments can often be stressful and confusing. By going to them together, you can help ensure that your family member or friend raises all his or her concerns, understands the advice that’s given, and recalls decisions that are made — since one person often catches something another one misses. On the other hand, remember that being part of these consultations isn’t your decision. You can volunteer, but you can’t insist if the person you’re helping prefers to go alone.

If you do attend, it’s a good idea to help prepare for each visit ahead of time together, writing down any questions either of you has or information you need so that you can be sure to remember to ask. If the medical team uses technical terminology you suspect neither of you understands, you can ask that it be explained.

In some cases you may need to speak on behalf of the person in your care, especially if there are differences of opinion on the best course of action. But even if you are leading the discussion, make sure it’s a three-way exchange, not one between you and the doctors.

Moving forward

When the treatment phase ends, returning to a normal routine is another adjustment. It’s a good idea to refocus the household’s energy on the recovery process, regaining strength, and staying healthy.

Keep in mind that you may notice symptoms or long-term side effects of treatment — like weight loss, moodiness, or memory loss — that your loved one may not be aware of. Talk about any changes that trouble you, and make sure to mention any new symptoms at follow-up appointments.

Many caregivers say that they feel on edge during this period, constantly worrying about a complication or recurrence. You may find it helps to discuss these fears with friends, a caregiver network you belong to, or a professional counselor.