As a cancer caregiver, helping someone else is a big part of your daily routine. It can be easy to ignore your own wants and needs, but taking care of yourself is an important part of maintaining your physical and mental well-being.

Caregivers are people who provide support for the daily needs of someone living with cancer. While anyone who provides care can be considered a caregiver, many people in this position are informal caregivers, meaning they aren’t paid professionals.

In fact, a 2024 survey of 200 caregivers of people with cancer found that most were family members shouldering the responsibility out of love and a sense of duty. Despite reporting common negative effects such as anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and financial strain, caregivers do their best to support their loved ones throughout the cancer experience.

Caregiving can be extremely demanding and overwhelming at times. It’s natural to feel frustrated or angry or to have moments when grief interrupts your day. But if negative thoughts and emotions are becoming more common than uncommon, it may be time to focus on caregiving — for yourself.

As a caregiver, you’re not only helping relieve stress from daily chores and tasks but also providing social support, facilitating transportation, helping the person stick to their treatment, and providing physical assistance.

Caregiving is a powerfully positive role, but it can also have some negative effects.

Taking on the responsibility of caregiving means adding it to your personal obligations. Navigating work, child care, and household needs while caregiving can become stressful and overwhelming very quickly.

Family caregivers are more likely than non-caregivers to experience depression, substance misuse, and sleep deprivation. They often develop unhealthy eating and exercise habits and ignore their own illnesses.

Don’t put yourself on the back burner. Caring for yourself keeps you functioning at your best. It will help you feel more capable and resilient overall, and you’ll be able to maintain a high level of care without constantly facing feelings of burnout.

Connecting with others

Caregiving can feel very isolating, especially if it takes you away from time with family and friends. Connecting with other caregivers through support groups and community networks can help.

You’ll be able to engage with people who share your experience. In addition to building a sense of camaraderie, you can share your successes and learn from the successes of others.

Engaging your passions

Make time for passions that enrich your life. Are you an artist? Do you love to read? It’s not selfish to make time for the activities that add joy to your life. Joy enhances resilience, which allows you to readily adapt to and overcome the challenges of cancer caregiving.

Adding some self-care

Spare 5 minutes to pamper yourself in some way. Have that specialty coffee. Put on that face mask before you go to bed. Treat yourself to the new pair of shoes you’ve had on your wish list.

You deserve to feel good during your day, and you deserve a break. Self-care is restorative for your body and your mind.

Talking with a mental health professional

Mental health professionals can listen without judgment and teach you new coping skills and stress management techniques.

If you’re feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression, a therapist can work with you to change unhelpful thought and behavior patterns that might add to your psychological stress.

Caring for your mental health and general well-being goes hand in hand with caring for your physical health.

Exercising

Regular physical activity helps protect against mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, maintains the functionality of your body, and increases “feel good” hormones that promote a sense of well-being.

You don’t have to go for an hourlong run every day, but finding ways to be active regularly can be helpful. For example, going for a walk with your loved one is one way to incorporate physical activity into your caregiving day.

Getting enough sleep

You can’t control when your loved one will need care, and sometimes chores and other tasks end up cutting into sleep time at the end of the day.

In one small 2021 study involving 41 caregivers of people receiving home care for advanced cancer, about 90% of the caregivers experienced poor sleep quality.

You can make the most of your sleep by implementing sleep hygiene practices such as:

  • keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet whenever possible
  • avoiding screen time before bed
  • keeping evening meals light
  • avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine, close to bedtime

Addressing illnesses and injuries

When you’re a caregiver for someone with cancer, you might tend to ignore your own illnesses and injuries. You might even feel guilty for worrying about conditions less serious than cancer.

But your physical health matters. Ignoring small issues can increase the likelihood that they will progress, and being sick or injured can affect your ability to support your loved one.

Take time to recover if you’re not feeling well. Visit your doctor and keep up with regular appointments. Your health is not less important than someone else’s.

Stress can be beneficial in small doses, but long-term stress, which caregivers often experience, can have negative effects.

According to a small 2022 study, psychological stress in cancer caregiving affects both physical and mental health. It can contribute to the development of depression and can increase levels of the hormone cortisol, which may contribute to weight gain, cardiovascular conditions, and immune system suppression over time.

Signs that you might be experiencing caregiver stress include:

  • constant tiredness
  • changes in weight or appetite
  • persistently low mood
  • irritability
  • loss of interest in your usual hobbies and activities
  • unhealthy coping methods such as substance use

How you manage stress comes down to individual preference. For example, some people like an intense workout, while others benefit from sitting quietly and listening to music.

You might want to try any of the following stress-reduction methods:

It’s also OK to ask for help from those around you. Allowing others to share in caregiving duties doesn’t mean that you can’t handle it or that you’ve failed in some way. Asking for help ultimately benefits the person you’re caring for by increasing the support available.

What if you need a break or can’t provide caregiving anymore?

If you’re unable to provide caregiving support as you have been, respite options may be available to you through community organizations, religious groups, cancer support networks, or local medical facilities.

What is a caregiver?

Caregivers are people who support the daily needs of another person. For example, a caregiver may take someone living with cancer to appointments, help cook their meals, or provide other care as needed.

Caregivers provide care for others, often at the expense of their own wants and needs. If you’re providing daily support for a loved one, taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of that person.

Exercising, getting quality sleep, and managing stress are just a few ways you can fortify your physical and mental well-being while supporting someone living with cancer.