Marc Silver Photo by Ben de la Cruz

Cancer takes a toll on patients, but it also takes a toll on the people caring for them. The caregiver fills a role he or she may never have played before: supporting a loved one who is coming to terms with a potentially life-threatening disease, settling on a treatment plan and navigating the difficult waters of treatment. There can be surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or other therapies, all adding up to a tough time ahead.

Believe me, I know. I’ve walked the walk as the husband of a woman diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. My wife had a tumor in each breast and was treated with lumpectomies, followed by six chemotherapy sessions and a month of radiation. Treatment ran from October through spring—a long winter full of moments of doubt and despair.

I was scared, worried, nervous, kind of in denial and kind of wishing it would go away. None of these feelings made me a very good caregiver. Eventually I learned an important lesson: If I took care of myself, I would be better able to support my wife. Here is some hard-earned advice for caregivers who experience the awful moment when someone they love is told “You have cancer.”

Find a person you can talk to. No doubt you have a lot of emotions churning inside, and sometimes you don’t want to burden your loved one with them. A caregiver support group is an option. Or the Web might offer the sense that you’re not alone, that your feelings are normal. For breast cancer, as an example, breastcancer.org has resources for caregivers. Or maybe a relative or friend will step up and listen. I was lucky—a cousin’s husband and a work colleague each asked me how I was doing from time to time. Bottling up feelings seems to make them worse, while speaking them out loud seems to diminish their power. My confidantes didn’t tell me what to do. They just listened, and that helped me feel better.

Find time to do the things you love. Your life may feel like it’s spinning out of control. You have all the responsibilities of life before cancer—job, family duties, household chores—and now you’re accompanying your loved one to doctor’s appointments and chemo sessions, dashing out to find ginger candy to combat nausea, and trying to run all the errands in one weekend that both of you would have handled in a week. You do need breaks, and there’s nothing wrong with taking them. Keep doing your favorite things—shooting hoops, jogging, watching movies or hanging out with friends. One woman told me her husband went to the health club to work out throughout her treatment. Her friends would say, “I saw him at the gym,” as if he were cheating on her. She would respond, “He’s making himself strong so he can be strong for me.”

Make time for romance. If the person you’re caring for is your partner, find opportunities for intimacy. One day, in the middle of the chemo months, my wife and I were in the mood, but she was a little shy about taking off her wig. “It’s me,” I said. And for a few minutes we weren’t thinking about breast cancer. But keep in mind that cancer treatments can put a damper on a patient’s sex drive. So if your partner is not in the mood, “too bad for you,” as my wife would say. Seriously, sex isn’t the only way to have romance. Buy flowers, go to the movies, or offer to give a back massage or a foot rub. These little ways of staying close will make it easier to reconnect when treatment is over.

Marc Silver, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and has co-authored with his daughter Maya My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens.