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Tips for Family and Caregivers

Medically reviewed by Monica Bien, PA-C on August 25, 2016Written by Dee Holli on August 25, 2016
breast cancer

If you have a loved one that’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s normal to want to stay by their side and offer unconditional help. While these gestures can be thoughtful, they may also be too much for them, and for you.

Here are some guidelines for how to help your loved one while also maintaining your own health and taking care of your needs.

Understand the treatment

Ask your loved one if you can go to medical appointments with them. Make sure you understand their diagnosis and the goals and specifics of treatment. Know what side effects are most likely and how to help manage them.

To help your loved one, take notes during medical appointments and bring questions to ask the healthcare team.

Administering medication

Make a list of all the medications, dosages, and frequency of administration. Bring the list to medical appointments. Also bring the name, address, and phone number of the pharmacy to medical appointments.

Give the medications exactly as prescribed by the doctor.

Side effects

Assure your loved one that you will help them with side effects from treatment, and ask them to tell you when they are feeling ill. Ask the nurse at the oncologist’s office or hospital in advance for advice on how to manage side effects from treatments.

Chemotherapy can reduce the number of white blood cells, so make sure your loved one takes precautions to avoid infections. And know the signs of infection so you know when you should call your doctor or go to the hospital.

Decreased appetite is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. If you notice your loved one isn’t eating as much try to find out if it is due to poor appetite or another reason like painful mouth sores, nausea, or trouble swallowing.

If their appetite is poor, ask their healthcare team about prescription medicines to stimulate the appetite. Irritation in the mouth and throat due to chemotherapy can make eating painful and may be managed by having your loved one eat ice chips, frozen juice bars, or popsicles.

They can also use oral solutions to reduce mouth pain, and avoid eating acidic and spicy foods.

For nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy or other medications, prescription anti-nausea medications called anti-emetics are available.

Special creams applied to the affected area can soothe skin irritation from radiation therapy. Ask the radiation oncologist or nurse for advice and a prescription.

Because certain types of chemotherapy can cause hair loss, wigs, scarves, and hats can be worn until the hair grows back. Go shopping at wig stores or online with your loved one to find which options will work the best.

If any new or increased side effects occur, contact the oncologist immediately.

Meals and food prep

Plan shopping in advance, and ask your loved one what foods they want to eat. A healthy diet with vegetables, fruits, and proteins is important for recovery.

Understand that their appetite may be diminished by therapy. Ask the dietician and nutritionist at the hospital for menus and recipes for foods that are good for breast cancer patients. Inquire whether easy-to-drink protein beverages can be used as meal replacement options.

If possible you may want to occasionally pick up food at some of their preferred restaurants.

Day-to-day responsibilities

Caregivers have a host of responsibilities which can include:

  • personal care
  • administering medication
  • preparing meals
  • cleaning
  • transportation
  • scheduling
  • banking
  • navigating health insurance

Recognize that people with breast cancer may have less energy, organizational focus, and interest in day-to-day activities. With your loved one, make lists and calendars of appointments, other events, and shopping needs.

You can volunteer to assist with certain day-to-day responsibilities. But encourage your loved one to be involved. Ask what things they want help with and what they want to continue doing by themselves. That way, they will feel involved and can take pride in participating in regular tasks.

Try to make your loved one’s life as normal as possible. Give positive feedback for responsibilities your loved one takes on and accomplishes.

Recreational activities

People with breast cancer may be less energetic and show less interest and enthusiasm for activities, even those they enjoyed in the past.

Think of things to do and places to go that your loved one likes. Put fun things to do on the calendar, like going to a movie, so they have special events to look forward to.

Mild exercise, like walking, can help your loved one feel better and provide improved outcomes. Range-of-motion exercises, as described by the doctor, nurse, or physical therapist can help maintain joint movement in breast cancer patients who must stay in bed.

Express positive feedback for physical activities your loved one tries. And show them you enjoyed sharing in the event or activity.

Emotional support

Having a positive attitude is good for your loved one and for you. Recognize that a breast cancer diagnosis can cause physical and psychological stress, and a range of emotions including fear, anxiety, depression, and even anger. Understand that some of the emotions your loved one experiences may make it seem like their personality has changed.

Allow your loved one to express their emotions in healthy ways. And listen and empathize with them. Let them know that their feelings are normal and that you are there for them emotionally, as well as to help with their physical and practical needs. Open communication is important.

Suggest things that help your loved one relax. These may include:

  • meditating
  • reading
  • listening to music
  • visiting a scenic place

Demonstrate respect for your loved one’s decisions. You may discuss some of the decisions you may not agree with, but realize that the important decisions are theirs to make.

Encourage them to join support groups where they can interact with other people who have breast cancer. The American Cancer Society can provide a list of patient advocacy groups.

Caring for yourself

Taking care of yourself is also especially important. Find ways to de-stress. Some options include:

  • meditating
  • taking a warm bath
  • reading
  • exercising
  • spending time alone
  • spending time with friends and family

Doing any of these can provide a sense of renewal. And reward yourself for all the responsibility and help you provide to your loved one.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your role as caregiver it can help to solicit friends and family to help with some tasks. Or contact the social worker at the hospital for referrals to community services, temporary care, or private caregivers who may be able to share some of the responsibilities.

Also consider participating in a support group where you can share feelings and ideas with other caregivers of people with cancer. Remember that you are an amazing person who has helped your loved one navigate their breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

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