Carer's section

Supporting someone with cancer

You might find that relationships with co-workers change when you return to work. Like your family/whānau and friends, your colleagues may be unsure of what to say or try to protect your feelings. Some people with cancer have found that being open about their condition eases relationships with co-workers.

If treatment has made it impossible to return to work, look into rehabilitation and retraining programmes that can prepare you for another job. Work and Income provides financial assistance and employment services throughout New Zealand. Contact them on 0800 559 009.

“After the treatment I couldn’t wait to get back to work. I wanted to return to something normal. I went back part time and that helped take my mind off things.” Bob

You may be reading this booklet because someone you care about has cancer. Most people are shocked when they hear about a family/whānau member or friend’s cancer diagnosis. You may feel lost for words but think you should say something. You may want to help but feel unsure about what to do. These are normal reactions. You can’t make the cancer go away. However, there are many things you can do to help yourself and your loved one.

Source: Cancer Council Victoria

Carers/supporters report that they go through a range of conflicting emotions when they are caring for someone with cancer. There is no right or wrong way to feel, everyone is different. This section of the booklet describes some of the emotions you may feel. They won’t happen in any particular order and you may not experience all of them.

Loneliness and isolation

Being a carer can be extremely lonely at times. Even if there are a lot of other people around offering help, you may still feel as though nobody else truly understands what you are going through.

Fear and anxiety

Watching someone go through cancer and its treatment can be frightening. Fear can be one of the hardest emotions to deal with. You may be fearful that the person with cancer won’t get better or of the side effects that may occur from their treatment. You may be frightened of the future — that you may not be able to support them in the right way or that you won’t cope with the situation. The person with cancer may have their own fears, which may make it difficult to talk to them and share experiences. Fear can make you feel that you have no control over the situation.

Stress

Looking after someone with cancer will be different for everyone. It is likely to bring a lot of stress into your life as you both try to deal with the demands of the treatment and its side effects or other changes. Feeling tired, upset, angry or anxious can add to your stress. Some symptoms of stress can include:

  • feeling very tired but having difficulty sleeping
  • becoming easily upset
  • feeling anxious all the time or having panic attacks
  • regular headaches
  • aches and pains
  • high blood pressure
  • increased heart rate.

If you think you are stressed it can help to talk to someone about how you are feeling. Take some time out and try to relax.

Sadness and depression

Feeling down and sad is very normal when you are caring for someone with cancer. You may feel sad about what the person has to cope with or what they have had to give up because of their diagnosis. If you are partners then you may feel sad about not being able to enjoy things together as you used to.

For some people the sadness may not go away. You may begin to feel down all the time and not able to pull yourself out of it. If this is the case, you may have depression. Other symptoms of depression can include changes in your appetite or weight, sleeping problems and feelings of hopelessness. Depression is very different from sadness. Depression is an illness that may need treatment with counselling or medication. If you think you might be depressed talk to your GP.

Guilt

Many carers say they feel guilty. You may feel guilty for not doing enough for the sick person or for feeling resentful, angry or lonely in your situation. Knowing you are well and the person you are caring for is ill can also cause feelings of guilt.

“I found it very difficult to cope with the fact that my health was so good. I used to feel so guilty every time Ben had chemotherapy and felt so sick afterwards. I used to wish so much that it was me that had the cancer and not him.” Belinda

It can be difficult to cope with these feelings so try not to beat yourself up. Perfection is impossible and it is likely that you are being supportive. It may help to talk with the person you are supporting about how you feel. If you think this might cause conflict, speak to a close friend or relative. Professional counselling may also be an option. Call the Cancer Information Helpline on 0800 CANCER (226 237) for more information.

Frustration

Your frustration may be related to many things: lack of time to do your own thing, or not being able to change the situation for the person with cancer. Tension can occur between you and the person with cancer. Although it’s a very normal feeling, frustration can make you feel anxious, upset or even angry at times

“One day I felt so angry I threw my hairbrush at the bathroom wall. I wish someone had come along and said to me that it is okay to be angry and it was okay to let that anger out, without harming anyone, sometimes.” Bev 

Anger

There may be times when you feel angry about what you have to do or how the person with cancer treats you. You may feel that they don’t appreciate everything that you are doing, or that they are only thinking about themselves. Dealing with anger may not be easy but the following tips may help:

  • In the heat of the moment, take a deep breath and walk away from the situation for a few minutes. Try to work out what is causing your anger.
  • Try to rest when you can, eat well and do some exercise each day. Tiredness, hunger and lethargy can all set off anger.
  • Don’t hold your anger in. There are lots of positive ways to help you deal with anger such as listening to music (with earphones if necessary), going for a walk or run, writing your feelings down or talking to a friend or relative. Avoid using alcohol and other drugs to relieve anger. They may help in the short term to relax you but, overall, they will make you feel worse and may make you do or say things you regret.
  • If anger has become a problem, talk to your GP or another health professional.

Resentment

It is very normal for carers to sometimes feel resentful. This may be towards the person you are supporting. You may feel other family/whānau members, friends or medical staff could be doing more to help. People may stop asking about you and only ask about the person with cancer.

People you once thought were friends may have stopped visiting or being in contact. You may begin to resent this and wish that someone would ask how you are feeling. Loving someone doesn’t always protect you from resentment.

If your relationship with the person you are caring for was ‘rocky’ or had ended before they became ill, you may now be struggling with feelings of resentment for having to support them.

You may wish to talk to a counsellor if things become too hard and you are finding that you feel resentful all the time. You may consider other options for care for the person with cancer. It is okay to think like this. Sometimes you have to make a decision that is right for you.

“I just wish once, someone would ask how I am before asking about Mum’s cancer.” Erin

Helplessness

There may be times when you feel that there is nothing you can do to help. You can’t take away the cancer or the pain. All you can do is be there. Many people say this makes them feel helpless. But feel reassured that by being there you are doing a lot and are appreciated.

“I just feel so helpless and I’m so used to feeling in control.” Max

Loss and grief

Many people only associate loss and grief with dying. However, grieving and feelings of loss can also happen when someone receives a diagnosis of cancer.

Many changes and losses occur with cancer. You may feel that you have lost part of your relationship with the person you are caring for. You may be missing work, people, regular exercise or an active and fun social life. Certain family/whānau and friends may be staying away because they are not sure how to deal with illness. You may be dealing with an uncertain future and financial changes.

It can take time to adjust to the changes and challenges you are now facing, so be kind to yourself. If you feel you would like to talk to someone about your reactions contact the Cancer Information Helpline on 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Satisfaction

Caring for someone can be very positive. It can be very satisfying to know that you are making a difference. You might feel surprised and pleased with the way you have handled the situation and the new skills you have acquired.

Taking care of yourself

We are all unique and have our own ways of coping during good and bad times. However, many people supporting someone with cancer say they have times when they are ‘fed up’ and struggle to think how they can deal with the situation.

Suggestions

The following suggestions may help you ‘hang in there’ and feel more in control.

  • Try to fit into your life one thing to look forward to, such as a catch up with a mate, a coffee date, time to yourself to read or going for a walk.
  • Try to read the signs of stress and do something before it gets too serious – if you are waking up every night at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep it may be stress. Don’t lie there thinking – get up and have a drink (decaffeinated is best), listen to your favourite music and try to relax. Talk to your GP if it continues.
  • Acknowledge your feelings and allow yourself the time to feel and work through your emotions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • It is okay to feel angry, to cry and to let people see how you are feeling. You can’t be cheerful all the time.
  • Talk your feelings through with a close friend or relative or seek help from a professional counsellor.
  • Some people use their religious and spiritual beliefs to help them cope with their emotions. Cancer may challenge your beliefs but it can also make them stronger.
  • Take time out for yourself.
  • Keep a pen and paper close by to write your thoughts down. Even keep them by your bed in case you wake and feel anxious and restless. Many people say writing things down helps a lot.
  • Know that we all make mistakes – none of us is perfect.
  • Accept yourself for who you are. Know that you are doing the best you can.
  • You can’t do everything so don’t expect to – there may be days when you need to leave certain things like the washing or cleaning. Just focus on those things that are really worth your time and energy.
  • Remember – some things you just can’t change!

It may help to join a support group or group programme such as the Cancer Society’s ‘Living Well’. Contact the Cancer Information Helpline on 0800 CANCER (226 237) or contact your local Cancer Society for more information on counselling support groups or group programmes running in your area.

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