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Who is considered a carer?

According to the Ministry of Social Development, at least 1 in 10 people are carers. Almost two thirds of carers are also employed outside of their role as a carer.

Some people who take care of family members or friends who have cancer do not identify themselves with the carer role, and thus they don’t necessarily know what their role is. Identifying yourself as a caregiver can enable you to get proper information and support to help you cope with the conditions and responsibilities of caring for someone with cancer.

Carers may be a relative, friend or neighbour. Informal or unpaid carers make a very important contribution to the care of people living with cancer. Carers provide things like:

  • practical support (such as getting shopping or food)

  • physical support (such as getting to appointments, doing some housework or giving medications)

  • emotional support (providing company and understanding).

The role of a carer is very valuable and often a very rewarding role, but it can be time consuming, exhausting, and demanding. Carers usually put the patient first, worry about them suffering and coping with a challenging schedule of caring – so they can need some caring for themselves.

Click here to find services that support carers.

Common emotional reactions to being a caregiver and how to handle them

With the advancement in early diagnosis and prompt intervention, we find that almost every day, more and more people suddenly find themselves assuming the role of a carer for someone with cancer. Sometimes, this abrupt change of role causes several reactions.

Anger and frustration

This anger and frustration can be an initial reaction to the diagnosis, a reaction to suddenly finding that you need to put your life plans and travels on hold, or it can even be projected towards that loved one who has cancer. You might feel angry and frustrated that you have to be the carer, not having family and friends to help, the burden of extra responsibilities and changes in family roles (e.g. being the breadwinner as well as carer), and being unappreciated by your loved one.

Take deep breaths and think, before you speak. Harsh words can hurt an already hurting loved one who finds they have cancer. Find other avenues for releasing the anger – a long walk, exercising, talking to a counsellor, mentor, family member or friend. Try different relaxation techniques and identify, then minimise or avoid, situations that can trigger your anger and frustration.


Fear can be because of the uncertainty of the severity of your loved one’s condition, or feelings of inadequacy of knowing what to do. You may also fear seeing your loved one deteriorate, be nervous about handling medications, or suffer from not being able to control the situation or the future.

Turn fear into an ally by using it to positively drive you into finding out more about your loved one’s condition, treatment, and medications. Identify what your concerns are as a carer and seek as much information as you can. Think short- and middle- term plans and handle tasks and challenges day-to-day or week-to-week. Consider long-term plans by having the sick loved one make advance directives or have the role of Enduring Power of Attorny assigned.

Loneliness and guilt

Even if you have other help around, you can still feel solely responsible for caring for a loved one with cancer. Being a carer might take lots of hours out from your day or week so you feel you don’t have time to socialise anymore. Some people may avoid visiting you because they do not know how to interact with the sick loved one you’re caring for. This can leave you feeling lonely and isolated.

You may feel guilty for being resentful and angry at situations or people, guilty about not doing enough as a carer or for forsaking your other family roles while taking up the role of a caregiver. You may even feel guilt when you feel you want to take a break from being a carer.

Try to keep communications open with family and friends. Some days, when face-to-face meetings/visits are difficult, use other forms of communication like phone calls, video chats like Skype, or email and blogs, and other social platforms. Encourage a family friend or a mentor to visit you in the house or call you every few days to check up on you.

Avoid using the words “should” and “must” on yourself. Try talking to the one you’re caring for about your feelings of loneliness and guilt. A chat with a counsellor or a religious mentor can help you process your emotions. Join local support groups and accept help from family members and friends. Some non-profit groups have volunteers you can talk to on the phone, online through forums or who can meet you in your home.

For more information, visit our 'Connecting with Others' page

Anxiety and depression

Financial burdens of caring for someone with cancer can leave you anxious and depressed. Not being able to do what you used to do before assuming the role of a carer can leave you feeling depressed. Likewise, knowing you are unable to do enough as a carer for your loved one can leave you anxious and depressed. Sometimes depression comes from the lack of sexual intimacy with a sick partner or even from the lack of appreciation.

Symptoms of anxiety:

  • trouble focusing on even simple tasks

  • difficulty making decisions and problem solving

  • feeling restless or excitable

  • tension migraines or headaches

  • disturbed sleep patterns

  • unexplained irritability

  • too much worrying

  • aches and pains associated with tense feelings, like sore necks and muscles.

Symptoms of depression:

  • feeling tired all day

  • weight loss and loss of appetite

  • loss of interest in once enjoyable activities

  • feeling sad and lonely

  • feelings of unworthiness.

Book an appointment with your GP, who may give you medications or offer you advice to help you cope with anxiety or depression.

Loss and grief

Loss of a regular job, loss of meaningful relationships, feeling of losing the best part of your life, can happen when you assume the role of a caregiver. Feelings of anticipatory grief can happen when you know a loved one with terminal cancer is dying.

There is no single right way to handle loss or feelings of grief. The first step is to acknowledge the emotions and talk to someone. Helplines and online grief support are available. You can read more on grief here.


Not all effects of assuming the role of a caregiver are negative. Being able to care for a parent, partner, son/daughter, friend, or relative who has cancer can be self-fulfilling and satisfying. You find yourself learning new skills and showing your commitment and love. On difficult days, knowing you are able to make a difference in a life of a loved one may make everything worthwhile and rewarding.

Seek financial advice from professionals

Talk to a social worker or to the doctor taking care of your loved one. They can help you claim benefits for yourself in terms of housing, heating, and transportation. Accept the fact that you may not be able to do everything you once did before assuming the carer role.

Be kind to yourself

There is no perfect carer. Talk to a counsellor, a community nurse, other family members and friends. Try some exercises (20-30-minute walk or jog) or relaxation techniques. Keep doing little things you enjoy – reading a chapter of a book, gardening, listening to music, doing crafts, regularly and choose to do it alone, or better yet – do it with the person you’re taking care of.

Additional coping strategies

  1. Know your limitations - As the conditions of the sick loved one changes, knowing to what extent you can do in caring for your loved one with cancer can help make the caregiver role clearer to you. Your limitations will depend on your current workload and situation.

  2. List what your boundaries and limitations are - In so doing, you are able to identify which tasks you can delegate to other carers or family and friends. It will also guide you on which services (childcare, meals-on-wheels, transportation, or respite care) you might utilise to help provide better care for a loved one with cancer. For example, if you are uncomfortable in handling basic hygiene practices or intimate care, like bathing or cleaning up after using the toilet, seek help from a community nurse.

  3. Allow room for growth - Don’t expect perfection in your tasks and roles as a caregiver. You may not know what to do or how to handle activities or things at first try. Keep learning and make allowances for mistakes and growth. Keep yourself informed by talking to the doctor or palliative care specialist who is taking care of your sick loved one. Talk and connect with families of cancer survivors. Join local and international support groups. Participate in activities that advocate cancer research and care.

  4. Write in a journal or diary - Writing can be a physical manifestation of your day-to-day feelings and emotions while being a carer. You can use this journal to write down daily tasks and use it to do problem-solving. You can opt to make a separate journal for handling medications and emergency contact person and numbers.

  5. Make allowances for your loved one with cancer - He/she may be undergoing extreme emotions and body changes that the cancer itself or the side-effects of treatments bring. Do not get offended when they lose interest in the food you prepared or can’t do the activities they used to do (e.g. sexual intimacy). They might be experiencing cancer-related fatigue. If they snap at you, withdraw emotionally, or openly express their dislike or unacceptance of help, learn to listen to what they’re really saying. They might be dealing with feelings of loneliness, depression, distrust or pride. First listen, then talk to them. If communication seems difficult, ask for help from your health care team.

Work with a health care team

As in any care for a person with cancer, you can seek help from a dedicated health care team.

Ask the person who you are caring for if they are happy for you to reach out to their healthcare team for advice if you need it.

Make time for yourself

Take care of your body. Do regular exercise, eat nutritious food, and get adequate rest and sleep. Even if you do not have an existing medical condition, do not forget to get a regular check-up with your GP. Continue taking your prescribed medications. When conditions require it, inquire about proper lifting techniques and / or mobility and lifting aids to prevent you from getting injured. It is easy to forget about your own health when caring for a sick loved one. Stress can creep in and you can feel fatigued, burned-out, or get sick yourself. Remember you can only do so much. You can only adequately help someone else if you, yourself are fit.

Get regular breaks from caring by getting a family member, friends, or carers to pitch in and help.

Ask for help with finances if you need it

Financial difficulties can be aided by various organisations that can help you manage debt and deal with refinancing, counselling, and budgeting. Talk to a social worker and your employer, and apply for practical and financial assistance as soon as possible. Some non-profit organisations, religious groups, or your local council can aid you financially.

You can also find information on our practicalities page

Other support options

  • outsource daily household chores like shopping, doing the laundry, or picking up the kids to paid or unpaid carers or students looking to earn a little extra money

  • use facilities like online shopping and home-delivery for basic food supplies.

Do the necessary paperwork

Consider encouraging your loved one living with cancer to arrange an enduring power of attorney. This will give you legal “ability to act on someone else’s behalf in financial matters” (e.g. pay bills, handle shares and properties, manage bank accounts) when a loved one has lost the capacity to manage these financial matters on their own (in case of accidents, deteriorating medical condition, coma, dying).