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Finding Balance as a Cancer Caregiver

by Steve Keir, DrHP, MPH

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We can only estimate the number of familial cancer caregivers in the United States, as there is no formal system designed to capture this data. However, we do know the number of people living with a history of cancer. If each person living with cancer had just one caregiver, a conservative estimate would approximate that there are at least 10.5 million people who have either provided care or continue to provide care for a loved one with cancer.

As caregivers provide physical and emotional support, they often put their lives on hold and do not fully attend to their own needs. In addition, most caregivers undertake this difficult task with little or no formal training, leaving them tremendously unprepared for this complicated and multifaceted role. As a result, caregivers often experience what is called caregiver stress at some point in the caregiving trajectory. To date, numerous studies have documented that caregiver stress can negatively affect one’s physical and psychological health.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Steve Keir

When Is Stress Not Good for Us?
Stress is the physical and/or psychological response that occurs whenever one must adapt to changing conditions, whether those conditions be real or perceived, positive or negative. Although everyone has stress in their lives, people respond to stress in very different ways. Stress is commonly perceived to be bad when, in fact, there are two very different types of stress: eustress, which is defined as pleasant or health-giving stress, and distress, which is defined as an unpleasant or disease-producing stress. Eustress, or “good stress,” can be thought of as providing you with an extra burst of energy to perform at your best, while distress, or “bad stress,” can drain your energy and impair your ability to perform well. Providing care to a loved one with cancer can produce both types of stress, so it is important to understand what triggers these different types of stress for you as a caregiver. Here are some signs of bad stress that you should watch out for:

  • changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • becoming emotionally strained
  • decline in physical health
  • feeling tired or lacking energy
  • feeling depressed, lonely, or isolated
  • becoming easily distracted, experiencing problems concentrating, or forgetfulness
  • changes in your behaviors and responses, including being easily irritated, angered, or saddened.

Self-Care Strategies for Caregivers
Providing care for a loved one can be a physically and emotionally draining experience, but as a caregiver, you need to remember that you are important, too. By taking care of yourself, you will be better able to handle the everchanging demands of caregiving. The following are tips to help reduce or address caregiver stress through self-care:

  • Stay physically fit and eat a balanced diet.
  • Try to get enough sleep and rest.
  • Consult your doctor, maintain regular check-ups, and inform your healthcare providers of your role as a caregiver.
  • Stay in touch with friends and family; social activities can help you feel connected and may reduce stress.
  • Take time out for yourself, either to relax or to take part in hobbies.
  • Look to faith or community groups for support and assistance.
  • Join a local or online support group.
  • Assess your support network of family and friends.
  • Learn about community caregiving resources.
  • Get organized – prioritize and make lists to establish daily, weekly, and monthly routines.
  • Create a long-term caregiving plan.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help or respite.

On your caregiving journey, remember to focus on the positive aspects of caregiving. These may include spending time with your loved one, connectedness or an improved relationship with your loved one, personal and spiritual growth, satisfaction from learning and doing a good job, and a heightened sense of value and self-esteem. Relishing the good times can help you through the difficult ones.

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Dr. Steve Keir is an associate professor at Duke University in Durham, NC, and works at The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center. He has studied and written about the stress experienced by brain tumor survivors and their caregivers.

November is National Family Caregivers month. Learn more at

For additional resources for caregivers, click here.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.