Dear Friend: 

There are many kinds of caregivers—family members, close friends, home healthcare people, and health professionals who do caregiving work. Each kind of caregiving has its own joys and challenges. In our Caregiver Handbook › we address the most intimate caregiving—care provided by a spouse, partner, family member, or other loved one.

We know from over three decades of work in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program that a cancer diagnosis can be at least as hard on the spouse, partner, parent, or child as it is on the person with cancer. But while the person with cancer tends to get the focus of attention, the person doing the caregiving is often considered a distant second.

This really doesn’t make sense. First, the pain and suffering can be just as great. Second, the stress of a deeply impacted life can be just as difficult. Third, it is very easy to get exhausted or sick from the pain, suffering, and stress of caregiving. Finally, if you as the caregiver burn out, it deeply impacts the person with cancer.

For all of these reasons, it isn’t selfish at all for you to acknowledge your own pain, suffering, and stress, and do whatever you can to bring nourishment, peace, and joy into your own lives as a priority and on a regular basis. Treat yourself kindly. Take care of your own mind, body, and soul. Consider our 7 Healing Practices › for yourself. So often all the love and support is directed to the person with cancer, and the caregiver needs it, too.

For family members and caretakers and friends who want to make a difference, a lot of well-meaning people want to convince their loved one with cancer to eat well, move more, meditate, do yoga and the like. We believe you can gently offer those thoughts—with an emphasis on gently. But it is far better, instead of being preachy about self care, to ask a very different question:

How can I help?

I had a good friend, the late Mimi Mindell, who went with a friend of hers to every doctor’s appointment and every chemo and radiation session. Love and support shows itself best in concrete ways. Kindness is love with its workboots on. Real caring means doing things like cooking, shopping, running errands or driving someone to treatment sessions. These are far more genuine acts of care than telling someone they should do some diet or other practice they aren’t drawn to.

It can be excruciatingly hard to see someone you love be in great pain. Or to live with them as they undergo sometimes terrible treatments. It is a profound discipline to find ways to be with these experiences without suffering greatly yourself in ways that do not help and may indeed hurt the person you love. 

But somehow, if we accept that as caregivers we can move into this new period of life, we can find—as our beloved with cancer can find—that we are deepened and ensouled by our suffering. Carl Jung says that it is only through suffering that consciousness grows. That is my own experience.

You need as much self care as your beloved does. It’s not selfish. If you take care of yourself, you have a better chance of coming through this experience finding the hidden moments of peace and joy.

Wishing you well,


Learn more

Explore our handbook just for caregivers. Several strategies foster effective caregiving and may help to address common challenges. If you experience emotional or physical distress, you may find help from conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are prescription drugs and physical therapy, complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture, and self-carelifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress approaches. Stories written by caregivers about their journeys caring for their loved ones with cancer offer inspiration or guidance.

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About the Author

Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices.

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Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices. He has led more than 200 Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats to date. His book Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer was the first book on integrative cancer care to be well received by prominent medical journals as well as by the patient and integrative cancer care community.

Michael Lerner Co-Founder