Caring for yourself

Key points

  • Caring can be physically and emotionally demanding.
  • Looking after your own wellbeing can relieve stress and tiredness.
  • You may feel like your health and interests are less important than those of the person with cancer; however, it is important to take time for yourself, even if it’s a few minutes a day.
  • Supporters often forget to look after their own health. Try to eat well, get some exercise, rest and keep up your regular check-ups. Talk to your doctor about any health concerns, especially if you are feeling depressed.
  • If you lift, move or physically support the person with cancer, get professional advice about safe ways to lift them.
  • Life can seem uncertain at times. Learning more about cancer and treatment may help you feel more in control. You may also want to attend doctors’ appointments with the person.
  • Talking to friends and family or joining a support group can help you sort out your feelings and ways to deal with them.
  • Organise your time wisely and try to concentrate on one task at a time. Using a diary and getting help from others can relieve some of the pressure.
  • Focus on the value of your caring role can make you feel more satisfied.

Looking after your own health

Supporters often forget to look after themselves. If you are caring for someone, your own health and wellbeing is very important as well. It’s important to say when you’re not feeling well or when things are getting ‘on top of you’.


  • Give yourself permission to treat yourself.
  • Eat healthy meals and snacks.
  • Try to get enough rest. Taking a warm bath or listening to relaxing music before bed may help.
  • Continue having check-ups with your own doctor.
  • Don’t use alcohol or cigarettes to deal with stress. These may make you feel better for a short time, but they cause other problems.
  • Exercise for 15–30 minutes each day. This will give you more energy, help you sleep better and improve your mood.
  • See a doctor if you notice changes in your health such as fatigue (tiredness that doesn’t go away after resting), sleep problems, weight changes or depression.
  • Take care of yourself if you are lifting, moving or physically supporting the person with cancer.
  • Be clear with the person with cancer about what you can and cannot do to help them.
  • Take some time each day for yourself.

Don’t expect too much of yourself

Sometimes you may feel like you could have handled a situation better. It’s okay to make mistakes. Don’t expect too much of yourself. No one is perfect; you’re doing the best you can.

Adjusting to change

Cancer is not just one stressful event to be dealt with and moved past – it is a series of changing situations and demands.

You may need to:

  • talk to your employer about what’s happening at home and that you may need extra time off
  • talk to your bank about changing financial commitments to make them more manageable
  • check what help you might be entitled to through your medical insurance
  • talk to the school about what’s happening and the possibility of changes in routine if you have young children.

Adjusting to shifting roles

When your loved one is diagnosed with cancer, there may be changes in family roles and routines. The person with cancer may not be able to manage all their usual roles and tasks. They may now be more dependent on you. You may have to take on roles that don’t come easily or that you find hard to manage. Supporting the person with cancer to do things they are still able and want to do is important.

At first, a shift in roles may be difficult for you both. Talk together about how you are both coping with these changes. This may include doing less housework, simplifying tasks where possible or accepting offers of help from friends or family/whānau. Often supporters feel frustrated because their usual standards cannot be met. It can be helpful to talk to each other about this, and discuss what is most important. What you may value as important may not be to the person with cancer. Remember to be kind to yourself and keep things manageable.  

Ways of coping when the ‘going gets tough’

We all have our own ways of coping during 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. 


  • The following tips may help you ‘hang in there’ and feel more in control.
  • Try to fit into your life one thing to look forward to every day, such as a catch up with a friend, a coffee date, time to yourself to read or go 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 3am 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. You could listen to the Relax CD which is available on our website, or contact your local Cancer Society. Talk to your GP if it continues.
  • 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 about your feelings with a close friend or relative or seek help from a 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. It could be by your bed in case you wake and feel anxious and restless. Many people say writing things down helps.
  • Know that we all make mistakes – none of us are 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!

How counselling can help

When you support someone with cancer, you will have to deal with many things for the first time. No matter how you’re feeling, support services are available to you. Your GP or medical team can refer you to someone who can help you manage these feelings such as a counsellor or psychologist who will:

  • help talk to you about any fears, worries or emotions you may have
  • help you to think about your feelings of loss or grief
  • help you and the person with cancer manage the effects of cancer on your relationship
  • help you cope with problems so that you can find more pleasure in your life
  • teach you ways to manage your anxiety
  • teach you ways to relax by meditation or breathing techniques, or recommend someone who can
  • help you communicate better with your family
  • help you work out ways to manage things that are causing you stress.

To find a counsellor, contact your GP, your local Cancer Society or phone the nurses at the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

“Terry’s way of coping was to get on with things whereas I wanted to talk things over and over. At times it was frustrating but I knew that he was doing what he needed to do to manage his thoughts and feelings.” - Helen