Caregiver Handbook: Support for Cancer Caregivers - CancerChoices

Dear Friend

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.

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Dear Friend

There are many kinds of caregivers—family members, close friends, home healthcare people, and health professionals who do cancer caregiving work. Each kind of caregiving has its own joys and challenges. On this page we’ll 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.

There’s also a lot to learn here for family members and caregivers 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.

Wishing you well,


Michael Lerner Co-Founder
Michael Lerner Co-Founder

Caregiving at a glance

Effective caregiving is essential to the physical and emotional well-being of people with cancer. While it may feel very difficult as a caregiver to tend to your own needs as well as those of your loved one, nurturing your resilience and well-being will benefit your partner as much as yourself. 

Many find that caregiving involves challenges and rewards. If you become exhausted, you won’t be able to do as much for your partner. You may experience times when making time for yourself is impossible, but taking time for yourself when opportunities arise will nurture you and provide relief. During these times, you may share your feelings with others, seek and accept help with practical tasks, and acknowledge and tend to your physical, mental, emotional, and perhaps spiritual needs.

Several strategies foster effective caregiving and may help to address common challenges. If you experience emotional or physical distress such as anxiety, depression, appetite changes, and/or sleep disruption, you may find help from conventional, complementary, and self-care approaches. 

You may find inspiration or guidance from stories written by caregivers about their journeys caring for their loved ones with cancer.

Words of guidance

Read words of inspiration and guidance from Michael Lerner, CancerChoices co-founder and author of Choices in Healing.

Helpful links


Maria Williams

Research and Communications Consultant
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Maria Williams is a research and communications consultant who brings over 15 years’ experience in research, consumer education, and science communication to CancerChoices. She has worked primarily in public health and environmental health.

Maria Williams Research and Communications Consultant

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher and writer for CancerChoices and also served as the first program manager. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher


Laura Pole, MSN, RN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, MSN, RN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Last update: June 25, 2024

Last full resource review: March 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrative in cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review 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 therapies and self-care lifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

Our staff have no financial conflicts of interest to declare. We receive no funds from any manufacturers or retailers gaining financial profit by promoting or discouraging therapies mentioned on this site.