If you take care of someone who has cancer – not because you’re paid for it, but because of your relationship to them – then you’re a caregiver. Often caregivers are family members of the person they care for – for example, their parent, spouse, child, uncle, aunt, nephew, or niece. They may also be friends.
Caregivers provide a tremendously important part of the care that cancer patients receive. In 2017, about 2 million Canadians depended on a caregiver in their home life, and the labour that caregivers contributed to the health care system was worth about $25 billion.1 The work that caregivers do allows cancer patients to live in their homes, where they are usually more comfortable and at ease and have more independence than in a hospital or care facility.
What caregivers do
There are many different ways of being a caregiver. A caregiver may provide care all the time, or only some days. They may live with the person they care for, or live nearby or far away. They may be one of several people who care for the same person, or they may give care alone.
The work that caregivers do mostly falls into three categories:2
- Medical support – for example, finding information about treatments, accompanying them to appointments, and communicating with health care providers.
- Practical support – for example, helping them manage their finances, cooking food for them, keeping track of their documents, driving them places.
- Emotional support – for example, listening, expressing support, keeping them company, having fun with them.
Different people need different kinds of support. CancerCare has an online booklet with tips on being a caregiver.
Becoming a caregiver
If someone has asked you to be their caregiver, it’s okay to be unsure about it or have mixed feelings. Talk through your thoughts and feelings honestly with the person who needs care. Determine what kind of care they need, and think about what responsibilities you would be willing and able to take on. Think about who else could be of help. The Canadian Cancer Society has more advice on becoming a caregiver.
Becoming a caregiver is often a very difficult time. In this article, Cameron von St James shares his experience of becoming a cancer caregiver.
Caring for yourself
If you’re a caregiver, you also need care. The demands that caregiving makes on your time and energy can make it easy to forget to take care of yourself. It’s important to do so, though, both for your own sake, and because it will make you better able to care for your loved one.
Remember that feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious does not mean you are failing as a caregiver. When everything is getting to be too much, that is nothing to feel guilty about. It just means it’s time to step back and take a moment for yourself, and maybe ask for help.
It’s important to know how much responsibility you can take on. Knowing your limits and respecting them allows you to provide for your loved one without burning yourself out. What can you do when you reach those limits? Here are some strategies:
Sharing responsibilities with another family member or close friend. They might help with errands, make food, or keep the person you care for company, for example. Asking for help with caregiving can be hard, but it is usually beneficial. It can be good to come up with specific tasks that others can help you with, such as running errands or doing shopping – or simply talking with you. Many people are more willing to help than you may fear.
Making time for yourself. Go on a walk, take a bath, watch a movie, spend time with a friend.
Getting emotional support. Find someone you can talk to about the difficulties you’re experiencing and the feelings you’re having.
As a caregiver, you want the best for your loved one, but your own health must remain a priority in order to care for your loved one as best you can. Try to get enough rest; stay active; share your feelings with trusted friends; and take some time for yourself when you can.3
For more advice, see:
- Caring for the Caregiver (a booklet from the U.S. National Cancer Institute)
- Taking care of yourself (Canadian Cancer Society)
Resources for caregivers
- Caregiving – information and advice from the Canadian Cancer Society on becoming a caregiver.
- Caregiving for your loved one with cancer – An online booklet from CancerCare filled with tips from professional oncology social workers.
- Caring for the Caregiver – A self-care booklet from the U.S. National Cancer Institute for caregivers of cancer patients.
- How I learned to be a cancer caregiver – An article by Cameron von St James about his experience and difficulties adapting to the role a caregiver.
Organizations that help caregivers
- Cancer Chat Canada provides free professionally-led online support groups for Canadians affected by cancer, including patients, survivors and family members. Support groups are structured to provide emotional support and a place to safely discuss personal topics.
- Caregivers Alberta is an organization of caregivers, for caregivers. They provide programs and resources to help people caring for family or friends who face challenges because of illness (including cancer), disability, or aging.
News and reports
- Advancing Collective Priorities: A Canadian Carer Strategy – This report lists supports and resources available for caregivers in Canada. It also calls for further collaboration between governments, employers, non-profits, and other parts of society to recognize and support caregivers. The report was funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer and produced by the Canadian Cancer Action Network, the Canadian Home Care Association, and Carers of Canada.
- The Caregiver Recognition Act – The Act, put forth by Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jeremy Roberts in the Ontario Legislature, sets out general principles relating to caregivers and proclaims the first Tuesday of April in each year as Caregiver Recognition Day. Ministries and government agencies may take steps to promote the general principles and may consider them when developing, implementing, providing or evaluating caregiver supports.
Videos about caregiving
- Canadian Cancer Action Network. (2017). “Advancing collective priorities: a Canadian carer strategy.” Advancing-Collective-Priorities_p-final-Rev.June-2.pdf
- CancerCare. (2019). “Caregiving and Cancer.” Retrieved August 2020 from https://www.cancercare.org/publications/1-caregiving_for_your_loved_one_with_cancer
- CancerCare. (2019). “Coping with the Stress of Caregiving.” Retrieved August 2020 from http://www.cancercare.org/publications/142-coping_with_the_stress_of_caregiving