Coping With Emotions

Caring for the Caregiver: How to Support the Cancer Patient’s Primary Caregiver

Dropping off a bag of groceries can make a big difference for a tired caregiver.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, a loved one often takes on a new role as a primary caregiver. Typically, this person is the partner, parent or close family member of the newly diagnosed person. That primary caregiver begins a new life, dedicated to advocating for and supporting the person living with cancer. It can be exhausting, and without the right support, the primary caregiver can become sick and stressed out. Caring for the caregiver can become a group effort, but it can feel difficult to navigate at times.

Here’s what you need to know about supporting the primary caregiver.

Start With Nutrition

A primary caregiver can become so intensely focused on their loved one’s needs that they forget their own basic ones. Caring for the caregiver starts in the kitchen. Drop off individual servings, ready for the fridge and freezer, of easy-to-make meals that the caregiver can pop in the microwave when they realize they haven’t eaten dinner. Bring a favorite treat to the hospital to make their time there a little more tolerable. Give them a new water bottle to subtly remind them to drink more fluids.

Rally the Troops

The primary caregiver needs a team of support, and you can help by being the contact person for everyone who wants to know how they can help. Set up a meal drop-off system through an online site like Meal Train, request help with driving the person to and from chemo, organize help to take kids to and from after-school practices, or solicit donations for housecleaning help. If you don’t know what the caregiver needs, ask them how they are struggling. Then, find the resources to meet that need.

Know When to Step Back

Cancer treatment is stressful and full of doctor’s appointments, procedures and opinions. If you are caring for the caregiver, you automatically become entwined in the cancer treatment journey. You are the go-to person for the caregiver to talk to, cry to and vent to. This access could make you feel entitled to give opinions or sit in on physician appointments. Resist this urge and err on the side of giving the caregiver (and their loved one) time alone together and with their treatment team.

Instead, send an encouraging text the morning of a big appointment or tuck a card in the caregiver’s overnight bag on the way to a hospital procedure. These small gestures can go a long way for encouragement without inadvertently stepping in on intimate moments during this scary time.

Communication Is Key

Any good friendship or relationship is rooted in healthy communication. If you are caring for a caregiver, keep up communication. While the caregiver may not always have the energy to communicate thoroughly, you can pick up cues from them to guide your support and behavior. Healthy communication and listening can help you step in with appropriate support when things are especially challenging, and can help you know when you are getting in the way. You are there to support the caregiver, so don’t take it personally when the caregiver asks you to take a few steps back.

Caring for the caregiver during cancer diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment is crucial. A loved and supported primary caregiver is less likely to get sick or experience negative mental health consequences of the role. Keep your focus on the caregiver and know that your role, while often in the background, is vital to the health of the patient.


If you’re looking for more ways to support the caregiver, you can help them find support groups and other resources. UVA Cancer Center offers a number of support services for caregivers.

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Haley Burress
Haley Burress