What is a caregiver?

A caregiver is simply anyone who helps to care for a loved one. You may not think of yourself as a caregiver. You may just see it as taking care of someone you love, but what you are doing is extremely important. Helping a loved one with cancer isn’t always easy. Caregiving can be a full-time, non-stop job that wears on you physically and emotionally, but there are many things you can do to make it easier.

Caregivers are often family members or friends. They provide important ongoing emotional and physical care for a person with cancer. Caregiving takes on many different forms. It can mean helping with daily activities, like going to the doctor or making meals. It can also mean helping the patient deal with the wide range of feelings they’ll experience during this time. The jobs of a caregiver fall into three basic categories: medical, emotional, and practical. The kind of support needed will be different for each person.

What does caregiving look like?

There are many ways caregivers help the person with cancer, and it’s a little different in each case. Here are just a few examples. You can help the patient:

  • Go grocery shopping and prepare meals
  • Assist with personal hygiene and changing clothes
  • Use the bathroom
  • Clean
  • Do laundry
  • Keep track of finances
  • Drive to doctor’s appointments and treatments
  • Provide emotional support
  • Take medication and adhere to the treatment plan
  • Change bandages after surgery
  • Communicate with the healthcare team
  • Communicate with other friends and family

Navigating Cancer Treatment

Depending on your loved one’s overall health and response to treatment, you may be the one managing the patient’s treatment. Here are some ways to help you navigate treatment for your loved one.

Educate yourself.

Learn as much as you can about your loved one’s diagnosis and treatment plan. Only trust information from reliable resources. Good resources for learning about cancer and treatment include:

You can also ask members of your loved one’s healthcare team for resources they recommend. Many large treatment centers offer information on their own websites, too.

Go to appointments with your loved one, and meet the healthcare team.

Before leaving to see the doctor, write down any questions both of you would like to ask. Bring a notebook and keep track of the doctor’s answers so you can refer to them later. Always ask for specific instructions for taking medication and nutritional needs. Ask for instructions in writing as well.

Questions to ask the healthcare team:

  • What is the diagnosis and stage?
  • What treatment options are available and what do you recommend?
  • Is the patient eligible for a clinical trial?
  • What will the side effects of treatment be?
  • How can the patient stay as healthy as possible during treatment?
  • Whom should I contact with questions after hours?

Tip: If your loved one’s Healthcare team includes a nurse navigator, the nurse navigator will be your main point of contact for questions. An oncology nurse navigator specializes in coordinating care for cancer patients. Make sure to get the nurse navigator’s contact information.

Take care of legal issues.

The hospital or treatment center will require the patient to give written permission for members of the healthcare team to discuss medical information with you. Make sure you take care of this early on so if any issues arise you will be able to contact the medical team on the patient’s behalf. Make sure your correct contact information is listed for the patient’s emergency contact.

You may also want to talk to your loved one about filling out advanced directives including a medical power of attorney. Medical power of attorney lets your loved one name another person, such as a family member or close friend, who can make decisions about medical care if he or she cannot.

Take Care of Yourself, Too

After a cancer diagnosis, your day-to-day life and your role and relationships in your family may change. For example, your spouse may have always done the household chores, but for now, it may be your responsibility. If you’re an adult caring for a parent, the caregiver role reversal may feel odd at first. Talk through these changes with your loved one.

Understand that your home life, finances, and friendships may change for a season of time. Sometimes the laundry might not get done, or maybe takeout will replace home cooking. Manage each day’s priorities as it comes. It’s okay to put other tasks on hold.

Taking care of yourself is also a crucial aspect of caregiving. Take a deep breath and realize that the support you provide means more than you can know. Try to set aside time for yourself each day to practice self-care whether that be through meditation, exercise, reading, writing, a long bath, or just being alone for a bit.