Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Supporting the survivor: tips for caregivers

Caregivers play a vital role in a patient's treatment and recovery.
Caregivers play a vital role in a patient's treatment and recovery.

Whether they are spouses, partners, children, relatives or friends, caregivers play a vital role in a patient’s treatment and recovery.

The role of the caregiver changes as the patient’s needs change. New challenges may arise during phases of the patient’s journey, which include diagnosis, treatment, at-home care and recovery. Below are a few helpful tips on how caregivers can support the survivor during these phases.  

Diagnosis

An important first step after a loved one receives a diagnosis is learning more about their specific cancer. As the old adage goes, “knowledge is power.” Being educated allows the caregiver to help the patient make well-informed treatment decisions during this stressful time. A few questions the American Cancer Society recommends asking the physician are:

  • What is the exact name and location of the cancer?
  • What is the stage of the cancer?
  • What treatments are recommended? How are they done, how long do they take and what are the potential side effects?
  • Will the patient need to be in the hospital? If so, when and for how long?

Treatment

This phase can be exceptionally exhausting for both the patient and the caregiver. A caregiver can help navigate this period by:

  • Taking on many of the patient’s household duties, scheduling hospital visits and providing transportation. This will relieve some of the patient’s day-to-day stress and allow them to focus more on their treatment.  
  • If the patient is comfortable making their diagnosis public, utilize social media and online communities that can act as tools for coordinating tasks amongst other caregivers, provide updates to loved ones and solicit support. Social media can also help the patient from feeling disconnected while in the hospital, as well as provide them with a constant vessel of encouragement.

At-home care

Advances in cancer treatments have shortened hospital stays, allowing patients to receive some care from home. In addition to hands-on patient care, the caregiver can provide emotional support by:

  • Being a companion and allowing time for the patient to adjust to their “new normal”
  • Finding ways to reduce stress for both the patient and caregiver. Activities such as guided imagery, yoga, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can be very helpful during times of stress and uncertainty
  • Planning fun activities, such as a movie or game night, that will distract the patient from their illness

Caregivers can often feel alone or overwhelmed without back up or support. Keeping a list of tasks and responsibilities can help the caregiver be prepared for when concerned friends and loved ones inevitably ask: “Is there anything I can do?”

Recovery

After treatment is over, caregivers often continue doing the things they did when the patient was in treatment. But, it is important to let the patient go back to doing the things they can and should do on their own. This will not only alleviate some of the load from the caregiver, but will also return a bit of normalcy to the patient's life.

It’s easy for a caregiver to neglect their own needs. Caregivers need support as well and should take time to maintain their own mental, physical and emotional health. For more information and tips on being a caregiver, visit www.cancer.org/caregivers.

About the author

Tamara A. Orr, Ph.D., R.N., L.C.P., is a clinical health psychologist at VCU Massey Cancer Center. 

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Posted on: February 3, 2014