Michelle Johnston-Fleece Photo by Anthony DiPietro

Cancer patients receive most of their care on an outpatient basis and often get help from spouses, adult children, other family members or friends. Even if patients are admitted to the hospital for treatment, they are often discharged faster and with more care needs than ever before.

The American Cancer Society estimates that unpaid caregivers provide more than 80 percent of home-care services, which include offering basic medical care, helping patients with hygiene and providing emotional and financial support. Here are four strategies to help you prepare for these responsibilities.

Ask Questions Before You’re Home

While caring for your loved one, you may be expected to perform a number of unfamiliar tasks, including administering medications, providing tube feedings and caring for wounds after surgery. You may also need to help your loved one bathe and perform other daily activities.

Before the patient is discharged from the hospital, have a clear conversation with a knowledgeable member of the care team—whether a nurse, social worker or other health care professional—to learn what to expect. Ask about the care the patient will need each day and whether you’ll need equipment, such as a wheelchair or hospital bed.

Assess Your Support System

Consider your ability to provide the necessary care and identify who can help you. Are you physically able to perform the care that is needed? Can other family members or friends help with shopping, child care or cooking? Is your employer flexible in accommodating your caregiving responsibilities?

Extra support can make a big difference in the amount and quality of care you can provide—as well as overcoming feelings of isolation or being overwhelmed.

Advocate for the Patient

If you are uncomfortable with the level of care you are expected to provide, speak up and ask the care team for information on available services. And keep asking until you find someone who can help you.

You may be able to get financial help and support from national organizations such as the Patient Advocate Foundation and CancerCare​, as well as from your local department of aging, nonprofit organizations and support groups. For patients with advanced disease, palliative and hospice care providers can also help relieve the caregiver by providing additional services.

Don’t Forget to Care for Yourself

Caring for a person with cancer can sometimes be overwhelming, so be sure to take care of yourself. Check this database for respite care programs, which provide short-term care for patients so caregivers can take a break. Also don’t forget to tap into your network of family and friends, who can keep the patient company or help with household tasks like cleaning, cooking and child care so that you can take care of your own needs, socialize or simply take a nap!

It’s important to make sure you have enough support to avoid burnout and maintain your own health. A few simple steps can help you take better care of the patient—and yourself. 

Michelle Johnston-Fleece was the primary caregiver for her husband, Matthew Fleece, who died in 2004. Now a patient advocate, she is the director of state initiatives for the Cancer Support Community’s Cancer Policy Institute.