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17 Tips for Cancer Caregivers

by Rob Harris

Wellness image

1 You Can Do It
Don’t allow your weakened emotional state to dilute your resolve. Clear your mind of the emotional static that may interfere with a vibrant, logical thought process. Be confident in your ability to take charge.

2 Create a Team Concept
Pronoun choice is ex­tremely important. Both the person with cancer and the caregiver are in this battle together. Incorporating the words “we” and “us” into conversations rather than “you” and “I” changes the dynamics and makes it clear you are battling the disease together. There may be times when your loved one frustratingly reminds you that you are not physically suffering as he or she is; however, mentally and emotionally, you are experiencing similar trauma. Hence, the term “we” aptly applies.

Author of Article photo

Rob Harris

3 It’s Not about You
More often than not, the care­giver is ignored during medical consults. While you are both in this together, it is the person with cancer upon whom the doctor must focus. There is no need to feel slighted. Allow the one-on-one dialogue to commence, and utilize that time to listen intently and take copious notes. That said, if you have questions, do not hesitate to ask them, and do not allow the con­versation to conclude until you have received a satis­factory response to each of your queries. Re­member, you do not need to be in the spot­light, but you are your loved one’s advocate. That carries a significant responsibility. The caregiver must be the eyes and ears for the survivor.

4 Help Wanted
Do not be afraid to swallow your pride and ask for help. Even if family and friends are available, be sure also to contact cancer-focused or­ganizations. Stockpile your resources. You never know when you might need to call on them.

5 Be an Optimist
If you believe you have the power to make things better, odds are you can positively influence your perception of your circumstances. Being optimistic allows you to be men­tally strong and reduces the possibility of developing a defeatist attitude.

6 It’s OK to Have Fun
It’s imperative to laugh and have fun. It’s an important part of life that sometimes gets drowned with sorrow and self-pity. Caregivers and their loved ones with cancer should seek avenues for finding enjoyment whenever they can and as often as possible. There is no need to become a hermit.

7 Not Everything Goes Smoothly
Though well intentioned, not all efforts to assist turn out to be in the best interest of your loved one with cancer. In these cases, you must be confident and step in. Hurt feelings may result; however, the primary concern is the well-being of your loved one. If explained in a calm and diplomatic fashion, those involved should hopefully not be offended.

8 Celebrate Small Victories
Yours may be a long, uphill battle. Each goal achieved, no matter how small in the grand scheme of things, is still a victory. Take time to pause and celebrate. Doing so prevents the remaining journey from appearing too overwhelming and allows you to focus on accomplishing the next task on the list.

9 First and Foremost, You Are Human
Much as you may try to be strong, you are still a human being with human emotions that you may not always be able to suppress. Though you may attempt to control them, you may not always be successful. Accept this for what it is, and don’t beat yourself up. There are more important things on which to focus your attention.

10 Avoid Overreacting
Caregivers and other caring adults have a tendency to be overprotective of their loved ones with cancer. This can occur when meeting with doctors and others with whom you may not agree. Your loved one was an inde­pendent individual prior to the cancer diagnosis and is likely to be the same person after the diagnosis. Do not disrespect them by being overly nurturing or speaking on what you believe to be in their best interest. If it doesn’t bother your loved one, it might be wise to ignore it.

11 The Only Dumb Question Is the One Not Asked
Do not hesitate to ask for clarification if you do not recognize or understand something. In time, you may become well versed in the medical terminology. Until then, you have a right and a responsibility to your loved one to know exactly what an unfamiliar term means. The best person to explain it to you is the one who just used it.

12 Patience Is a Virtue
People with cancer experience many physi­ological changes due to the medications being pumped into their systems. As such, a caregiver’s level of patience will likely be tested regularly. Because of changes to their senses, foods and beverages that once were favorites may be swiftly and emphatically rejected. Don’t take it personally. Your loved one wants to find something to eat as much as you want them to. Sometimes, it’s a challenge to determine what is appealing at that moment.

13 Combating Frustration at Home
The caregiver role, for most of us, is an around-the-clock commitment. Regularly designated rest or meal periods are few and far between. You’re on call whenever needed. While it is human nature to become frustrated and annoyed, it is critical that these feelings remain shielded from your loved one. Should they not be, argu­ments may arise, or worse, your loved one may stop asking you for help altogether. If you are unable to control your visible irritation with the situa­tion, contact others for support. If family or friends are not available, call a professional organization that is experienced with your loved one’s medical condition. They may be able to assist with support or give recommendations.

14 Relish Your Downtime
The nurses really do have things under control. When your loved one sleeps, that is the best time to do things that you enjoy. Take a nap, read a book, take a walk, or do whatever else makes you happy. This is your time. Take advantage of it. It’s important to focus on your mental and physical health whenever time permits.

15 Walk on Egg­shells
Many days will be emotionally challenging. There are times when your loved one with cancer will need a shoulder to cry on or someone to vent to. In most cases, you are that person. Try to keep in mind that your loved one is turning to you for love, support, and in some cases, a release of pent-up emotions. Should verbal attacks be lobbed your way, try not to take them personally. The anger will subside. Don’t hold a grudge; always consider what your loved one is going through. Ask your­self, “If I were him, would I be acting differently?”

16 Take Care of Yourself
If you do not take proper care of your­self, it likely will detract from providing the proper attention your loved one needs. Try to stimulate your mind, body, and spirit throughout the medical ordeal.

17 If You Reach the Breaking Point
Depend­ing on medical, personal, and professional circumstances, you could suffer from overwhelming mental anxiety and fatigue. Should that occur, turn to someone you trust or an organi­zation that provides emotional support, regardless of the time of day or night. Keep appropriate phone numbers handy, just in case.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Rob Harris is a caregiver to his wife, Cindy, a two-time cancer survivor. For more of Rob’s caregiving tips and resources, visit

Adapted with permission from We’re In This Together: A Caregiver’s Story, by Rob Harris, copyright © 2012.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.