Caregivers Taking Care of Themselves

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2019

One of the most important—but often forgotten—tasks for caregivers is caring for themselves. A caregiver's physical, emotional, and mental health is vital to the well-being of the person who has cancer. To be a good caregiver, you must be good to yourself.

How to cope

Caregivers may experience periods of stress, anxiety, depression, and frustration. The following suggestions can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed or burned out.

Find support. Feeling angry, guilty, alone, afraid, and/or sad can be common for caregivers. Talking with other people who are caring for a family member or friend with cancer can help you cope. Ask an oncology social worker to help you find local resources, such as support groups. You can also ask the patient’s cancer center if they have a support network program. This can connect you with another person who has had a similar experience as you.

Recognize the signs of stress. The following are signs of stress:

  • Feeling exhausted all of the time

  • Getting sick more often than usual

  • Not sleeping enough

  • Feeling impatient, irritated, or forgetful

  • Not enjoying things you used to enjoy

  • Withdrawing from people

If you feel constantly stressed, learn more about managing stress.

Get help. Explore new ways to provide care and seek help from others. This can mean hiring people to care for the person with cancer or to help you with chores, errands, or childcare. Family, friends, and members of religious and community groups are often willing to assist. Accept their help and give them specific tasks. Consider making a list a family, friends, neighbors, and local organizations who can help and what tasks they are available to do. In the ASCO Answers Guide to Caregiving (PDF) you can find a chart to help you keep track of who would like to help with daily or weekly caregiving tasks.

Make time for yourself and other relationships. Spending time doing something you enjoy can give you a much-needed break. Taking breaks can help you continue to be an effective caregiver. Also, spend time with other people who are important to you. Those supportive relationships are important for your own health and well-being.

Learn about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees who need time off to care for a seriously ill family member. Employers must continue benefits during the leave period, and some may allow a flexible or reduced work schedule. The act also permits employers to provide leave provisions that are more generous than the act requires. Talk with your employer to learn about the specific provisions your company offers.

Explore options for financial assistance. Out-of-pocket costs such as parking, transportation, and food can add up for a caregiver. If managing costs becomes stressful, you can seek financial counseling. Find out if the center or hospital where the person with cancer is receiving treatment provides this service. Some cancer foundations also provide financial aid. Learn more about organizations that provide financial information and aid.

Be kind and patient with yourself. Many caregivers experience occasional bouts of anger or frustration. And then they feel guilty for having these feelings. Try to find positive ways to cope with these difficult feelings. This could include talking with supportive friends, exercising, or journaling.

Take care of your body. Make time to exercise, eat healthy foods, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep. Also, re-evaluate your own health. The stress of caregiving can lead some people to develop or increase unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, or using prescription medicine improperly. If you cannot make healthy changes on your own, seek professional help.

When to seek professional help

Caregivers need to pay close attention to their emotional and mental health. Several studies have shown that caregivers are at an increased risk for depression and anxiety. If you are having trouble coping with your emotions, talk with your doctor or a counselor.

Depression symptoms

Symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness and despair that interfere with daily activities. Other warning signs include:

  • Loss of appetite or overeating

  • Problems sleeping, such as not being able to sleep or sleeping too much

  • Lack of energy

  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

  • Trouble with focus, memory, and making decisions

  • Feeling irritable and restless

  • Excessive crying

  • Headaches or constant, unexplained physical symptoms that don’t improve with treatment

  • Drinking too much alcohol or increasing the use of mood-changing drugs

Anxiety symptoms

Anxiety is a common and normal response to a stressful situation, such as caring for a person with cancer. However, too much anxiety can lead to health problems and interfere with daily activities.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Trouble solving problems, making decisions, or focusing

  • Feeling excitable or restless

  • Increased muscle tension or feeling tense

  • Headaches

  • Unexplained and constant anger or irritability

  • Not being able to sleep

  • Too much worrying

Managing depression and anxiety

In addition to seeking professional help, you can manage depression and anxiety with the following steps:

  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol

  • Plan enjoyable activities with family and friends

  • Join a support group for caregivers

  • Arrange activities that bring you happiness and comfort

  • Exercise, even as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time

  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga

Keep in mind that taking care of your emotional health and physical needs makes you a more effective caregiver. And this ultimately helps the person you are caring for. Learn more about depression and anxiety.

Related Resources

Online Resources for Caregivers

Coping with Guilt

How Advocacy Helps Me Fight Fear of My Spouse’s Recurrence

How Receiving My Own Cancer Diagnosis Changed My Perspective on Caring for Someone With Cancer

If You Have Self-Doubt When Caring for a Loved One With Cancer

More Information

American Cancer Society: Caregivers and Family

CancerCare: Caregiving

National Cancer Institute: Caring for the Caregiver

Rosaylnn Carter Institute for Caregiving

The free ASCO Answers Guide to Caring for a Loved One With Cancer includes practical tips, advice for communicating with family and the health care team, and worksheets to help track medications and coordinate caregiving tasks. Download this guide as a printable PDF in English (44 pages) or in Spanish (40 pages).