9 Tips for Caregivers: How to Help a Loved One with Cancer

elderly patient and caregiver

Take things one day at a time, and don't be afraid to ask for help.

Caring for a loved one with cancer is a meaningful yet challenging role. We asked experienced caregivers to share some of the advice that helped them through the process. Here is what we learned:

1. Stay Organized

Keep a log: Write down any symptoms or problems in a notebook. It organizes your questions for each visit and makes it productive. It is a big responsibility to be a caregiver. You are emotionally attached to your patient. You’re not trained as a nurse or doctor, yet here you are fighting for a life, often far away from MSK. But together you realize you are part of a team that coordinates care. You can do things you didn’t think were possible.

— Linda Adragna, on Facebook

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2. Don’t Forget the Basics

Sleep becomes a very valuable commodity! If you’re not resting, you won’t be able to deal with everything. Eat well. I know the tendency is to sit down with a half gallon of ice cream and down the whole thing, but it’s not going to work. You have to eat well to keep up your energy and keep up your strength.

— Jim Cooper, in MSK’s “Advice for Caregivers” video

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3. Remember to Breathe

Remember to take a few deep breaths every day. Just that small act would slow down my racing heart and clear my mind. I wish had known to do this right from the beginning of my son’s journey.

— Ceil Fraticelli, on Facebook

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4. Consider Joining a Support Group

Caregiver Carla Smith

Carla Smith (left) offers advice at MSK’s CancerSmart event for caregivers.

With support groups, you realize you’re not alone. You make connections and friends.

— Carla Smith, at MSK’s CancerSmart panel discussion “Support for the Caregiver: Practical Advice and Tips for Coping”

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5. Go One Day at a Time

Take it one day at a time, so you don’t lose yourself under the stress of the unknown. Focus on the positives every day, and never pity yourself or your loved one who’s fighting. Positivity rubs off on people, but so does pity.

— @TL43TL, on Twitter

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6. Practice Self-Care

Taking care of yourself is very important. You can’t give proper care if you’re not taking care of yourself. You want to make sure that you don’t burn out and that you are your best self so that you can give the best care possible.

— Michelle Pierrot, in MSK’s “Advice for Caregivers” video

A Guide for Caregivers
This guide will help you care for someone with cancer.
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7. Call On Your Network

I soon realized I needed help, and there’s no way you can do this alone. I had a very good network of friends and I basically delegated: I asked them to do certain tasks for me.

— Joan Kilcommons, in MSK’s “Advice for Caregivers” video

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8. Know Where to Turn

I try to surround myself with people who are positive and who support me in the right way.

— Stacey Lawrence, at MSK’s CancerSmart panel discussion “Support for the Caregiver: Practical Advice and Tips for Coping”

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9. Enlist a Professional

Reach out to a psychologist. MSK has so many resources and there is so much help out there.

— Monica Magda Gheorghe, on Facebook

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Editor’s note: Comments have been lightly edited for clarity.


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Hi. my wife Mary is currently under treatment and I have read many of the suggestions and services available.

I would like to know if there are any audiobooks and/or videos made by MSK that would help my wife to embrace meditation. I have used some from tube but I can’t seem to get her full interest. I have talked her into thinking about her breathing when she is down but I would like to get her into more meditation practices. We have a large family and friends that have been extremely supportive.

Thank you.

Any way to stay positive and in a good mood is valid; even taking a walk around the block and watching people, dogs, kids, crazy taxi drivers help me stay ME.
Be disciplined with good diet, enough sleep and avoiding toxic relationships.

My husband was just diagnosed with tonsil cancer. He is very anti-surgery, and to my dismay, when they did the exploratory surgery, they left the tonsil and the tumor in, which made him ineligible for the clinical trial. I know the choices are his, but at times I feel frustrated, helpless, angry.... and there are times like this his choices directly affect me. I am a professional dog trainer, and for the first time in 9 years, I will not be able to attend the canine professionals conference I go to.... which is MY recharge every year. On top of that, we have been together for 15 years, and just got married a month and a half ago.... two weeks before all this began. I want to respect his wishes and decisions, but want to take care of me and my feelings too.... and I am not sure sometimes how to accomplish both. Lastly, we are both recovering addicts.... 14 years for me, 15 for him, and MY drug of choice will be in the house... in my face... in abundance. I can't help him if I relapse. I bought a narcotics lock-box and told him I do not want the combo or the key.... I am doing what I can to protect myself, but it does not feel like enough. I have a lot of family willing to step in and help, but I am scared and I don't always know the right way to react. I keep reminding myself as hard as it is for me.... he is the one going through this. I am not sure what else to do.

Dear Suzanne, we’re sorry to hear about all that you and your husband are going through. You may want to ask your doctor or his care team for a referral to a therapist who has experience in caregiver issues. You may also find it helpful to participate in Connections, our online support group. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to both of you.