Young Adults Caring for a Parent With Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2015

Key Messages:

  • Talk with your parent about his or her needs and expectations, your availability and limitations, and your feelings. These discussions can help prevent confusion and tension in your relationship.
  • Organize your caregiving responsibilities and ask for help from family and friends to make the tasks seem more manageable.
  • Taking care of your own emotional health, physical needs, and personal responsibilities will make you a more effective caregiver.

If your parent has cancer, you may feel torn between establishing yourself in the world and helping your parent. Caregiving can be a rewarding way to reconnect with parents. It may also limit your freedom and ability to explore new opportunities.

As a caregiver, your concerns are likely focused on how to provide support with limited time and resources. Meanwhile, your friends’ lives may revolve around careers, relationships, and recreational hobbies. These differences may feel you may feel alone to manage your responsibilities and emotions.

The suggestions discussed below could help to ease the burden you may feel.


Talking with your parent and any siblings is important during an illness. You may feel uneasy discussing difficult topics, wanting to avoid those discussions. Talking about your shared concerns and hopes may provide some relief and give you more connection and support. In addition, it helps each family member understand what is expected and needed.

Consider asking a family friend, a relative, or even a doctor, nurse, or counselor to help guide these discussions.

Consider these tips when planning for such discussions:

  • Avoid discussing concerns about the illness and plans for managing treatment during a crisis when you are rushed, if possible.
  • Ask your parent about treatment wishes. Respect those wishes and acknowledge your parent's right to control decisions about his or her care.
  • Discuss how finances will be handled.
  • Establish expectations about visits, responsibility for care, and other matters. And, agree to review these expectations regularly to evaluate whether they are realistic.
  • Write a letter to express your thoughts if you find it difficult to bring up these topics. This may help set the stage for easier in-person discussions.

Manage caregiving responsibilities

Once you have learned what type of help your parent needs and wants, organize your tasks. To start, create a list of tasks. These may include giving medical and physical care, addressing legal and financial issues, and talking with friends and family. The following list provides some steps to consider:

  • Request a meeting with your parent's health care team to get clear, accurate information about your parent's illness and treatment. The doctor will need permission from your parent to share such information. It may be best to accompany your parent to a scheduled appointment.
  • Make sure the doctor has your full contact information. It should be included as part of your parent's file in case of an emergency.
  • Keep a list of key contacts with you at all times. Include the doctor, nurse, social worker, pharmacist, and emergency room. Also, give this list to others who will provide care.
  • Make copies of your parent's legal documents. This includes an advance directive, a power of attorney for health care, and a power of attorney for property. You will also need copies of health insurance cards and relevant financial information.
  • Have a close friend or family member help organize a network of people who can help your parent with tasks. It may help to write down these specific tasks so that when people ask, you are prepared. Some people create an email list or webpage or use one of many websites available to make this process easier.

Learn more about how to manage common caregiving tasks.

Don't be afraid to ask for assistance. Most friends and relatives are willing to help, particularly when given specific suggestions. Learn more about sharing responsibilities and other caregiving options.

Seek personal support

Taking care of your own emotional health, physical needs, and personal responsibilities makes you a better caregiver. Set aside time to step back from the role reversal and allow others to do the caregiving. This will help you interact with your parent as simply a son or daughter for a while. In addition, as much as possible, continue your friendships, romantic relationships, work, and whatever hobbies refresh you. Investing in yourself will give you more energy to be truly there for your parent.

That sort of balance is often difficult to maintain because of lack of time and complex emotions. During this time, take advantage of resources for support and find ways to cope with stress. Some ideas include the following:

  • Check with your employer's human resources manager about the Family Medical Leave Act, Employee Assistance Program, and other benefits.
  • Talk with a friend, clergy member, or counselor to help you cope with your experience.
  • Join an online or in-person support group.
  • Write in a journal to express your feelings and document your journey.
  • When people offer to help you or your parent, say yes.
  • Plan activities with your parent that are unrelated to his or her cancer.
  • Spend time with supportive friends, even if you have to scale back these activities while you juggle other responsibilities.
  • Maintain your health through regular physical checkups.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Listen to soothing or uplifting music.

Learn more about how to care for yourself while caregiving.

More Information

Caregiver Support

Sharing Responsibilities

Long-Distance Caregiving

Additional Resources

CancerCare: Young Adults as Caregivers

Family Caregiver Alliance: Caregiving Issues and Strategies

National Cancer Institute: When Someone You Love is Being Treated for Cancer