Tips to Live By

5 Tips for Cancer Caregivers

Nov. 27, 2023 - Katie McCallum

If your spouse, family member or loved one has received a cancer diagnosis and you will be helping them through their treatment, you're a cancer caregiver.

Being a caregiver to someone with cancer is a meaningful role, but it comes with unique challenges. A good place to start as you prepare is to understand what your loved one is going through, the practical things you'll need to do to help and how to manage your own stress and anxiety along the way.

"The most important thing for a caregiver to realize is the toll cancer takes on the patient, both physically and psychosocially," says Jenifer Escott, an infusion nurse at the Houston Methodist Neal Cancer Center. "Cancer treatment can be very draining on a person's body and mind, causing extreme fatigue and other side effects."

There will be many day-to-day tasks to handle as you support someone with cancer. In addition, there likely will be mental and financial hurdles to navigate, as well as the stress of balancing your personal and professional life with the added responsibilities of being a caregiver.

It's a lot, and it's totally normal to feel unprepared.

Here are five tips that can help you as you start your journey as a cancer caregiver:

1. Have supplies ready to help manage side effects

One of the most practical roles a cancer caregiver will play is helping to provide basic medical care at home, which means knowing what to have on hand.

"Every cancer patient's experience is different — different medications have different side effects, people have different responses to the medications," says Escott. "At the first appointment, we go over everything you need to know about your loved one's specific treatments, including what to expect in terms of side effects."

Some of the common cancer treatment side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Digestive issues, such as constipation and diarrhea
  • Appetite loss
  • Hair loss
  • Skin and nail changes
  • Pain


Escott recommends gathering supplies you might need to manage these side effects ahead of time.

"We always recommend patients or caregivers have anti-nausea prescriptions filled before the patient's first treatment, so these medications are ready to use should you need them," says Escott. "People don't always experience nausea right away, but it's good to have medications readily available if this were to occur."

It's also recommended that you have over-the-counter laxatives and anti-diarrheals on hand, in case digestive issues arise. Ditto with pain relievers for any pain your loved one might experience.

2. Know that the little things go a long way

A big part of being a caregiver is keeping the household running smoothly — whether that's doing more grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning or taking on new chores, like mowing the yard. These tasks might not feel like much, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"As treatment goes on, some people really struggle with fatigue," says Escott. "Even just getting up and sitting down can be incredibly exhausting. Remind yourself that all of the little things you do every day for your loved one really do go a long way."

For instance, even a task as simple as refilling a glass of water can be a huge act of kindness to someone experiencing the extreme fatigue cancer treatment can cause.

Words of affirmation and small gestures of support mean a lot, too — since many cancer patients will face physical changes that affect self-esteem and more.

"Cancer patients receive harsh medications that can affect their hair, skin and nails," explains Escott. "Some may even grieve their old physical appearance and have mixed emotions. Try not to take these reactions to heart. Just try to be kind and patient with them, offering emotional support when they're down."

3. Don't wait to report concerning symptoms

Since both cancer and cancer treatments can weaken the immune system, cancer patients are considered immunocompromised. This means they're at risk of getting very sick if they experience an infection.

This is why caregivers should take steps to protect their loved ones from common respiratory illnesses — such as colds, the flu and COVID-19 — by staying up to date on vaccinations, maintaining good hand hygiene and avoiding people who are sick. Foodborne illness is also a concern, meaning caregivers should take care to ensure food is properly handled and cooked.

In the event of an infection, Escott recommends every cancer caregiver have a thermometer readily available.

"We want patients and caregivers to notify their physician about fevers right away," says Escott. "A fever that we might usually wait out at home can actually be very serious for this immunocompromised population."

If symptoms are severe, going to the emergency room is advised.

Signs of severe infection include:

  • Fever higher than 100.4ºF
  • Trouble breathing
  • Constant vomiting
  • Bloody diarrhea/stools
  • New confusion
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Dehydration, often characterized by weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness when standing


4. Be prepared for changes in appetite, food preferences and more

As cancer treatment continues, don't be surprised if you need to adapt the meals you prepare to meet the changing appetite or palate of your loved one.

"Every patient is unique," says Escott. "Some are really impacted by nausea, while others find that certain foods just don't taste the same anymore. Certain cancer treatments cause smell and taste changes. Try not to let your feelings get hurt if you make their favorite dish but they don't want to eat it."

Escott's tips for cooking for someone with cancer include:

  • Planning small, frequent meals if appetite is reduced
  • Avoiding spicy foods, especially if your loved one is experiencing indigestion
  • Trying new dishes if taste bud changes are keeping them from enjoying their usual favorites
  • Making sure meat, fish, poultry and eggs are fully cooked and that raw vegetables and fruits are thoroughly washed


"Since cancer patients are immunocompromised and at risk of getting seriously ill from improperly handled or undercooked food, caregivers need to prioritize food safety," Escott stresses.

She adds that hydration and eating well-balanced meals are also important for preventing complications and malnutrition.

5. Don't ignore your own health and wellness

Supporting a loved one with cancer can be very taxing. For starters, there's the constant worry about your loved one's physical and emotional health. There are also many practical hoops to jump through, including coordinating frequent appointments, paying for expensive treatments and taking on more responsibilities around the house.

"Studies show that caregivers of cancer patients, specifically, are more likely to experience stress-induced anxiety than other caregivers," says Escott. "It might feel like your loved one's health should be the primary focus at all times, but it's important for caregivers to make time for stress relief."

Ways to relieve stress include exercise, meditation, art therapy, expressive journaling, attending a caregiver support group or making time for a hobby that helps you relax.

"Remember that your care team isn't only here for your loved one, we're also here for you as their caregiver," says Escott. "Share any concerns or challenges you're facing with anyone on the team. We always do our best to provide you with the appropriate resources and recommendations."

Cancer caregiver resources include access to nurse navigators, social workers, financial liaisons, mental health providers, volunteers and more.

"Just communicate your needs, and we will do our very best to help," adds Escott.

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Categories: Tips to Live By