Being there during cancer diagnosis and treatment
This page discusses some of the practical and emotional issues you may face when the person you care for is having tests or being treated for cancer.
The person you’re caring for may want you to be with them at different times during their diagnosis and treatment.
Some people like to have lots of independence for as long as possible. Others prefer to have someone with them for most of the time. The amount of support they need may vary from week to week, depending on what’s happening to them and how they’re coping.
One of the most helpful things you can do is to learn more about cancer and cancer treatments, so that you can understand what the person is going through.We have detailed information about different types of cancer and treatments. We also have this information as booklets, leaflets or audiobooks. You can order free copies at be.macmillan.org.uk
If the person you care for is going for investigations and tests, or waiting for results, this is probably an unpredictable and distressing time. There may be a number of visits to the hospital for different appointments before the doctors can confirm that your partner, relative or friend has cancer. This can take up a lot of time.
It can be a very difficult time when they are told they have cancer.
You will both need time to come to terms with it and you may feel a range of emotions. This may affect your ability to work well.
During this time, you may want to think about:
talking to your line manager or the human resources department at work to let them know your situation
preparing for more visits to the hospital so doctors can find out more about the cancer and decide how best to treat it - usually, appointments are booked in advance so that you can arrange time off work if you need to.
Some operations for cancer will mean the person you care for needs to stay in hospital for a short time. Sometimes, depending on the situation, the stay may be longer.
There may be a period of time after the surgery when they are recovering and need more support. You may want to:
visit them in the hospital – this can be very tiring if you’re working too
take time off work to care for them in the days and weeks when they first come home.
During this time, it’s important to give yourself time to rest.
Radiotherapy treats cancer using high-energy x-rays.
It’s usually given in the following way:
as an outpatient treatment (where the person does not need to stay in hospital overnight)
at a specialist unit
on a daily basis, from Monday–Friday, over a few weeks.
You may be planning to go with the person you are caring for when they have their treatment. Although each treatment takes only a few minutes, the travel time might add considerably to the amount of time you need away from work.
Anti-cancer drugs (including chemotherapy)
There are different types of anti-cancer drug. There are three main groups: chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapies and hormonal treatments.
Chemotherapy drugs are usually given in a chemotherapy unit in the hospital over several months.
Targeted therapies are a newer group of treatments that work by targeting the growth of cancer cells. They are also given in a chemotherapy unit in the hospital over several months.
Hormonal therapies are drugs that can stop or slow the growth of cancer cells by either changing the level of particular hormones in the body, or preventing the hormones affecting the cancer cells.
Treatment with anti-cancer drugs is usually given every two or three weeks at scheduled times.
Each session will usually involve an afternoon or a full day in the chemotherapy unit at the hospital. But sometimes, it may involve a stay overnight or for a few days. This will depend on the type of cancer being treated and the anti-cancer drugs used.
Chemotherapy and targeted therapies are usually given regularly. But sometimes there are delays in treatment, for example if a person needs longer to recover from the side effects of treatment. It can help to explain this to your key contact at work and try to plan for the unexpected, wherever possible.
Most hormonal therapies are given as tablets, but some are given as injections every few weeks or months.
If you would find it helpful to ahve information about these treatments in booklets then we can send you detailed information about treatments, individual drugs and ways of coping with the side effects. Call us on 0808 808 00 00 or visit be.macmillan.org.uk
Helping the person you care for cope with treatment
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Treatment can be stressful and exhausting. You may find that the person experiences mood swings that are out of character. It can help both of you to have some time alone.
Planning for visits to hospital
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It’s a good idea to plan ahead for each visit, especially if you will be there for a few hours. You may want to:
find out how easy it is to park and whether there are free or reduced parking fees (some hospitals have special arrangements for people with cancer)
check the ward visiting times – these can vary from hospital to hospital
check whether you can get any food while you are there, or whether you can take a packed lunch
take something to do or read
find out whether the person you’re caring for needs to stay overnight in hospital, and whether you need to stay somewhere nearby
allow plenty of time if you are going with them to treatments or appointments – there can be delays and you may end up spending longer than you expected at the hospital.
Some people are able to travel to and from their treatments without any problems, but others may need some help with their transport.
It may be possible to arrange transport to take your relative or friend to their appointments. Some GP surgeries can arrange volunteer drivers and the hospital may also be able to help.
Some areas have local voluntary groups, which are sometimes called ‘good neighbour’ schemes. They provide practical help to people in need, and this often includes help with transport to hospital or your GP surgery. You could also ask family and friends about setting up a rota.
This is a time when working from home or flexible working may be useful. It may be worth discussing this with your employer.
Some people may need to stay in hospital while they have treatment. This may affect how much time off you might need if you want to be near them and the hospital is some distance away.
Once the main treatments are finished, your relative or friend may have follow-up appointments and further treatment.
This can include things such as ongoing medication and check-ups, scans and physiotherapy.
Many people who have been treated for cancer worry that it will come back. They might think that any new symptoms they have are caused by the cancer, when they may not be related to the cancer at all. This uncertainty can be difficult at a time when they feel they should be getting back to normal.
We have more information on life after cancer.