Cancer itself and treatments for cancer can cause a number of symptoms and side effects that often deeply impact daily life. For caregivers, it is not uncommon to feel helpless when the person you care for is suffering from frequent symptoms like pain or fatigue. Fortunately, there are ways that you can help your loved one deal with these side effects.
Monitor changes to symptoms and side effects
It is important to take note of any new or changing symptoms and side effects and report them to your loved one’s healthcare team as soon as possible. As a caregiver, it can be helpful to keep a detailed log of when these symptoms occur and their severity. You may also notice useful patterns about when and why your loved one experiences some of these effects. For instance, you may realize that your loved one has more energy during the first few hours after they wake up and can help them to prioritize more taxing tasks and activities for during that time frame.
Practical tips for helping your loved one
Dealing with fatigue
Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. Getting moving can help to alleviate some fatigue and improve energy levels. After talking to the healthcare team about safe levels of exercise, you can plan regular activities for your loved to exercise within their limits. This can be something as simple as scheduling a daily walk around the neighborhood or participating in a gentle exercise class together.1
You can also help to plan scheduled times for rest and encourage your loved one to take breaks when needed. Simply reminding your loved one that fatigue is normal and that it is okay to ask for help can go a long way.
Some types of cancer can cause pain, while others may experience pain as a side effect from cancer treatment. Encourage your loved one to be honest with their healthcare team about their amount of pain and discomfort, as some people may feel ashamed or embarrassed to say they are in pain. Helping your loved one keep track of pain using a severity rating scale, as well as noting how long the pain lasts and what it feels like (such as a sharp or dull) can help to better convey pain levels to providers.2
People can react differently to different types of pain medication. If you are local, help the patient walk or drive until you know how any new pain medications or new doses impact them, as some people may experience dizziness, drowsiness, or confusion. Encourage the person to drink a lot of fluids and eat fiber-filled foods to minimize constipation, which is a common side effect of pain medicine. Warm washcloths or cool packs may also help but talk to your doctor first if the skin has been exposed to radiation.2
Memory loss and mental fogginess
Treatment for cancer can sometimes lead to cognitive challenges, including memory and concentration problems. It can be helpful to encourage the use of tools like a daily planner or phone app to keep track of appointments and medications. Starting a binder for your loved one that includes up-to-date medication lists, healthcare team contact information, and all appointment notes can aid in staying organized when memory problems make it difficult to remember or keep track of lots of information.3 Encouraging writing down questions and other notes (and writing things down yourself) can show your loved one that it is okay to not rely on memory.
While it can be frustrating and time consuming to deal with someone who is forgetful or struggling with cognitive challenges, maintaining your patience and helping your loved one develop routines for daily tasks can make things easier for both of you. For example, setting up a basket for placing keys and wallet can help avoid a scramble when trying to get out the door.
Cancer patients often have weakened immune systems and can be at risk for increased infections. To help your loved one avoid infection, encourage them to wash their hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom, before eating, or after touching things used by other people. Providing a travel sized hand sanitizer can help them to rid their hands of germs when a sink is unavailable.4
As a caregiver, you may have already taken on some daily tasks for your loved ones that can help to minimize the risk of infection. Assisting in situations where your loved one would need to go into a crowded place, such as a school or stores, can be helpful in avoiding infection.4 Purchasing groceries or picking up prescriptions for your loved one can reduce exposure to sources of infection. For those not local to their loved one, delivery services can help the patient avoid crowded spaces.
You may also have an easier time asking (and enforcing!) that friends and family avoid visiting when they are sick and reminding visitors to wash their hands when they enter.
Providing support and knowing when to ask for help
These are just some of the symptoms and side effects that your loved one may experience and some ways that you can help alleviate their impact. Ultimately, providing emotional support is one of the most important things that you can do as a caregiver. However, it is important to recognize that caregiving can be draining and that it is okay to reach out for help when you need it.
Fatigue and cancer treatment, National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/fatigue.
Managing Cancer Pain at Home. American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/pain/pain.html
Chemo brain, American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/changes-in-mood-or-thinking/chemo-brain.html/
Cancer, Infection and Sepsis Fact Sheet, National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/pdfs/cancer-infection-and-sepsis-fact-sheet.pdf