How to Manage Cancer Caregiver Stress & Cope Safely

Often, cancer caregivers will put their own needs aside to focus on the person with cancer. It doesn’t need to be this way.
Updated on September 22, 2023
How to Manage Cancer Caregiver Stress & Cope Safely

Cancer changes everything it touches. Not just the body and health of the person diagnosed, but also the emotional and even physical wellness of their friends and loved ones. Caregivers in particular may not recognize their lives post-diagnosis. It’s a scary, stressful journey that you may never feel fully “prepared” for, but it’s important that you try. 

If you’ve found yourself in the caregiver role for a loved one with cancer, you probably have questions–lots of them. And while you may be constantly wondering if you’re doing enough for  your loved one, you should also ask yourself if you’re doing enough for yourself

Often, cancer caregivers will put their own needs aside to focus on the person with cancer. It doesn’t need to be this way.

How to Spot Caregiver Stress & Burnout

Everyone experiences some level of stress at some point in their lives. Too much can take a devastating toll on your body and mind. Your health, relationships, and even your enjoyment of life can suffer. 

As a caregiver, feeling stressed for too long can lead to burnout. You may feel angry, depressed, afraid, anxious, or frustrated. It may feel like things are spiraling out of your control and you can’t focus on what’s in front of you, including how to effectively care for your loved one. At its worst, burnout can take a physical toll that wears you down overtime.

Here are some signs of burnout that may mean it’s time to see a healthcare provider:

  • Putting off seeing your doctor and ignoring your own health problems
  • Poor diet
  • Overusing alcohol, tobacco, or other substances
  • Lack of exercise
  • Distancing yourself from friends and loved ones
  • Bottling up your feelings, leading to angry outbursts
  • Feelings of unwarranted resent or annoyance at others
  • Feeling depressed, anxious, or hopeless
  • Irregular sleep, or lack of sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Desire to blame your loved one for their illness and your situation

Causes of Cancer Caregiver Stress

It goes without saying that caring for a sick person is difficult. Acknowledging the struggles you face can help you better understand your stress triggers and learn to manage them, or even share them with your healthcare provider. Here are some things that can cause caregiver stress and burnout, or make them worse. 

Fear of the unknown

Nothing is certain when it comes to cancer. Understandably, you’ll worry about your loved one and how much time you have left together. 

Relationship changes

Sometimes, caring for a person with cancer can mean a big reversal of roles–like a child suddenly needing to care for a parent. Reversing or changing roles isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be confusing.

Endless to-do lists

Your role as a caregiver may come with hefty responsibilities. You may feel like you have too much on your plate and not enough hours in the day to get it done.

Money worries

Cancer care is expensive. From medical supplies, healthcare costs, and even the gas money it takes to get to and from treatment, it all adds up. This can become extra stressful when you and/or your loved one can’t work full time anymore, or at all.

Feeling lonely and isolated

Caring for another person can be a round-the-clock job. You may feel as though you don’t have time to spend with friends or enjoy hobbies you used to love. 

Feeling suffocated

On the flip side, caring for someone else could mean you rarely get some much-needed “you” time. 

Constant care

Feeling like someone constantly needs you is draining. You may feel guilty when you step away to take care of your personal needs. 


Speaking of guilt, this can be one of the most stressful feelings of all. You may feel like you aren’t doing enough, or that you’re giving all your time to the person with cancer while neglecting your other relationships.

Dealing with Stress as a Cancer Caregiver

You know your role as a cancer caregiver is stressful. Now, what can you do about it? Here are some tips for managing your stress levels. 

Recognize the warning signs

Try not to dismiss your feelings as “just” stress. As we’ve covered here, being stressed or burned out can lead to serious trouble. Spot it early, acknowledge it, and take measures to reduce it.

Ask for help

Don’t just wait for someone to offer. You may be waiting too long. Ask for help with caregiving when you need it, and accept help when it’s offered.

Focus on you

If you’re able, ask a trusted friend or family member to step in for a few hours so you can focus on something else. See a movie, have dinner with a friend–anything that makes you feel like “you” again.

Take care of your body

Eat a good diet, drink lots of water, and exercise a bit every day. Your physical wellbeing can impact your emotional wellbeing. 

Go to the doctor

It’s easy to let your own health needs slip by when you’re focused on someone else. Don’t let it happen. Continue going to your checkups, dentist appointments, etc. 

Acknowledge your stress

Identify the sources and them down–especially the ones you feel like you can’t (or shouldn’t) share with someone else. Note the things you can control or improve, and consider tools, like prayer or meditation, you can use to manage the rest.

Make a list

Not just a to-do list. Make a list of priorities for the day and set yourself up for success with realistic goals. Even if you can’t meet them, give yourself grace. They’ll still be there tomorrow. 

Make another list

Only nice things in this one. Write down your wins, favorite quotes, jokes. Give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished and forgiveness for things that didn’t go as planned.

Feel your feelings

Give yourself permission to grieve, cry and express yourself. 

Find peaceful, calming activities

Yoga, meditation, breath work, and music can help you relax and find your center.

Talk to someone

For general support and guidance, reach out to a friend, family member, counselor, or someone at your church. When your stress reaches high levels, it’s time to talk with a professional. 

Laugh often

Some days it may seem impossible to even muster a smile, but laughter is literally medicine. Watch a funny movie or video and indulge in those silly memes. They help.

Learn to say “no”

The world won’t end. Be honest if you’re asked to do something you don’t want to do. Someone else can worry about Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Get educated

Knowledge is power. If we can better understand a situation, the uncertainty isn’t so scary anymore. Check out Join the Many’s resource center for educational reading on your loved one’s condition, treatment, and other aspects of their journey. You can also get information from your doctor, online, your local library, or even support groups. 

Find an expert

Someone who can help you understand all the information being thrown your way. A doctor is an obvious choice, but you can also get information from support groups or someone who has been in your shoes. This is especially important if you’re in charge of helping your loved one understand and come to terms with their illness. 

Make a plan for finances and legal issues

A little planning now can alleviate stress later. It’s possible you and your loved one, as well as your entire family, will have some difficult but important decisions to make. Join the Many can help connect you with the appropriate legal care if you believe the person you’re caring for was made sick by a defective drug or product. 

When to See a Doctor

If you feel like hurting yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately. If you have any of these feelings for more than a couple of weeks, it’s time to see your doctor:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Generalized anger

Common Cancer Caregiver Questions

What does a cancer caregiver do?

This is no time for imposter syndrome. If you provide virtually any level of care for someone with cancer, you are a caregiver. It’s important that you don’t minimize the role you play to avoid the desire to take on even more responsibility to feel as though you’re being “useful enough.” 

A caregiver for someone with cancer may provide mental, physical, or even spiritual support to their loved one. Maybe you’re the go-to driver for treatment or checkups, or the person who does the grocery shopping. Maybe you’re responsible for daily needs like bathing, shaving, or helping your loved one get dressed. You may even be in charge of managing a feeding tube, giving injections, or changing bandages. Of course, you may be the person in charge of all these things and more. 

No matter your role, it’s important to understand it may change over time. As your loved one’s health improves or declines, your responsibilities can change too. 

Am I doing enough?

If you ask your loved one if their needs are being met, and they say yes, believe them. If their answer is no, ask how you can help. But be honest if you’re feeling stretched too thin. Open communication will make everyone’s journey that much easier. 

Should I be involved with my loved one’s treatment?
This is a conversation you should have with your loved one. Cancer treatment can be grueling. It’s possible the person you’re caring for would be grateful for your help. It’s also possible they want to keep their treatment and any decisions around it to themselves. You may not even be comfortable playing a role in that part of their journey. Be upfront and honest about what you’re willing to do, and respect their wishes if they’d prefer to handle it on their own.

What if I start to feel overwhelmed by all of this? 

Caring for someone while they battle cancer may be the hardest thing you ever experience. If you feel like it’s “too much,” it probably is. Never be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to family, friends, and community organizations for support. Take a step back to evaluate your health and give yourself some space if you need it. 

Will life ever feel “normal” outside of being a cancer caregiver?

This role can take up massive amounts of space and time in your life. Eventually, it may even start to feel like your identity. Lean on your community to allow yourself a break every now and then. In the meantime, try to keep a routine for yourself and your family to stick to. Don’t feel guilty for having fun or taking time for yourself. 

How can I find resources for cancer caregivers?
Start with our resource center for patients and caregivers alike. In your community, check in with senior citizen centers or cancer-focused non-profits that may offer support or, at the very least, can connect you with home health services or other specialized resources.

Join the Many is here to provide a free, no obligation case review to determine if you may be eligible for a settlement. If you are, we’ll carefully match you with the best attorney for your case. There are no legal fees unless you win compensation. Contact us today to get started.

More Resources

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