Cancer Affects the Carer Too

23 July 2017

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Expert interviewed:
Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist

Ben Britton and Julie McCrossinThe thing about cancer is that it affects the carer too.

A cancer diagnosis not only changes the life of the person with the cancer, but also the lives of those close to them.

If you are caring for someone with cancer, you might find that you are so focused on supporting them that you forget your own needs or don’t really acknowledge the impact it is having on you.

In this episode of The Thing About Cancer, Julie and health psychologist Dr Ben Britton look at the experience of caring for someone with cancer. 

Carers can sometimes feel sidelined, even though, just like the person with cancer, their lives are often upended after a cancer diagnosis. And just like the person with cancer, carers need strong support systems to help them strike a balance between their caring duties and the rest of their life.

– Ben Britton, psychologist

Listen to Cancer Affects the Carer Too now, or find more episodes here.

Who is a carer?

In this podcast, Ben talks about what defines a carer, and whether carers actually see themselves as carers or as someone who’s simply lending a hand.

Carers’ responsibilities can be many and varied, and can include:

  • coordinating medical care, such as managing medicines, helping control pain, monitoring side effects, and physical care of the patient
  • providing practical support, such as preparing food, accompanying the person to treatment, managing finances and making legal arrangements
  • offering emotional support
  • communicating with family and friends.

Carers often have high levels of stress

Research shows that levels of distress can sometimes be higher in the carers of cancer patients than in the cancer patients themselves. That might surprise some people.

In this episode, we explore what makes the experience of caring for someone with cancer so difficult. Ben explains that the carer often feels a huge sense of responsibility, and they typically put the person with cancer first, ignoring their own needs.

It’s easy for the carer to feel isolated and lonely. With all their caring duties, they can slip off the social radar, and lose touch with friends.

Caring itself is exhausting and demanding. Add to this work, financial strain and possibly needing to look after other family members, and you can see how the stress can build.

How do carers react to this stress?

Carers can react in different ways to stress. 

Ben talks about carer burnout, explaining that stress can manifest itself physically, with trouble sleeping, headaches, or changes in appetite. Carers can also be affected emotionally, feeling tired, irritable, angry – or they may experience depression, guilt or fear.

So what can a carer do to cope?

We learn the different things that may help you cope with the stress that often comes with caring. Set boundaries and priorities, be kind to yourself and don’t expect perfection – and take time out for yourself: socialise, do sport, or something creative. Having that ‘me-time’ will help you focus on yourself, and recharge your batteries.

– Ben Britton, psychologist

In this episode you’ll also find out about the support services you can call on to bolster your own caregiving – and don’t forget to reach out to the people around you, friends and family, as they may just be waiting for a cue to step up and lend a hand.

If you are caring for your partner, how might this affect your relationship?

Going from being partners to being a carer and patient often changes the traditional roles you play in your relationship. 

Rather than working as a team, you may shift to a much more one-sided dynamic. Often this is a result of the carer not wanting to put any extra burden on their partner, who is already dealing with their cancer diagnosis. But it’s still a relationship, and you need to support each other through what might be the hardest thing that either of you will ever do.

While it’s not always the case, many people do find that the experience of cancer deepens their relationship.

Listen to Cancer Affects the Carer Too now to learn more, or find more episodes here.

Want more information or support? 

If you heard something mentioned in the podcast, you’ll find a link to it below. We’ve also added links to other sources of information and support. 

From Cancer Council NSW 

From other organisations 

  • Carers Australia – national body representing Australia’s carers
  • Carers NSW – provide information and services to carers in NSW
  • Carer Life Course – identifies six phases of caring and provides information, support and resources 
  • Working Carers Gateway – information for people in NSW who are juggling caring and working, and information for their employers
  • Young Carers NSW – a Carers NSW program for carers aged 25 and under