Cancer and dementia
Find out more about supporting someone who has cancer and dementia, including how to get help and support.
In the UK, there are about 670,000 carers of people with dementia. Many people with dementia are cared for at home by a family member or friend.
Many people with dementia also have several other health conditions, including cancer. Living with two conditions can be very difficult for the carer and for the person with dementia.
If you are supporting someone who has dementia and cancer, this page talks about some of the worries you may have and ways to cope. It also gives practical information about getting help and support.
We also have a booklet called A guide for people with cancer and dementia that the person you care for may find helpful.
Dementia is a word used to describe a set of symptoms. There are several types of dementia, so each person affected may have different symptoms. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.
Dementia is caused by damage to the brain. This damage is mainly from Alzheimer’s disease or strokes (vascular dementia). Symptoms will depend on what has caused the damage and what part of the brain is affected.
Symptoms can include:
- problems thinking clearly
- finding it hard to solve simple problems
- not remembering or using the right words
- being confused or disoriented
- changes to behaviour or personality.
Dementia is usually thought of in three different stages - early, middle and late. These stages are a guide to how dementia might develop over time. But dementia is different for each person and the stage will depend on different factors, including:
- the type of dementia
- the person’s general health
- the support available
- whether the person is having treatment for dementia.
Some people may not notice symptoms at first. Symptoms may come and go, while others may get worse over time (progressive). As the dementia moves into a later stage, someone with dementia may need help with everyday activities.
Sometimes the stages of dementia overlap. This may mean they need help with one type of task or activity, but can manage others on their own.
Some types of behaviour can be both challenging and distressing.
The main treatments for cancer are:
The treatment depends on:
- where in the body the cancer started
- the size of the cancer
- whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body
- the person's general health
- any other conditions they have, such as dementia.
The doctor will consider all these things when planning treatment. They can affect how well certain cancer treatments work or whether someone is well enough to have them.
The cancer treatment offered to the person you’re caring for will depend on their individual situation, but also on the stage of the dementia. Specialist doctors and nurses can talk to you about what cancer treatments might help in their situation.
We have more information about treating cancer when someone has dementia.
Treatment for dementia
Currently, there are no treatments to prevent or cure dementia. But researchers are looking at medical treatments and vaccines.
Some treatments may help to improve the symptoms, but these are mostly only for people with Alzheimer's disease. The treatments can sometimes slow dementia for a while.
Drug treatments for dementia have some side effects that mean they are not suitable for everyone. A dementia doctor or nurse can tell you more about which treatments may be suitable for the person you care for.
There are two main types of treatment for dementia:
These may include talking therapies, counselling, support at home.
These include drugs that can help for a while with memory problems, drugs that can help with hallucinations, or treat depression and anxiety.
People who have dementia caused by strokes may be given drug treatments to treat the cause of the strokes. This might include drugs for high blood pressure, heart problems or high cholesterol. They may also be given advice about lifestyle changes that may help, such as stopping smoking.
Talk to the dementia doctor or nurse to find out more about treatment for dementia and what might help.
If someone has dementia, it is likely that their ability to make decisions (mental capacity) will be affected in the future. There may come a time when they will not be able to make certain decisions or communicate easily.
If they think ahead about their future care and treatment, it can help you and any other carers, such as health professionals.
There are different ways the person you care for can plan ahead. This is sometimes known as advance care planning. It includes:
wishes and preferences for care
The person you care for can talk to you, or someone else they trust, about how they would like to be cared for. They can also write down wishes and preferences for family or health and social care professionals. These are called advance statements.
advance decisions to refuse treatment
power of attorney
This is called lasting power of attorney in England and Wales, power of attorney in Scotland and enduring power of attorney in Northern Ireland. It allows the person you care for to choose someone to make decisions on their behalf. Dementia UK has a leaflet on Lasting Power of Attorney, which you may find useful.
We have more information about
It can help for the person you care for to think ahead and make some decisions about where they will be cared for in the future.
There are different options for care but this depends on what is available in your area. The person may be able to stay at home with help and support, or they can be cared for somewhere else such as a nursing home.
The person you care for may have symptoms or side effects caused by cancer or its treatment. Symptoms and side effects can usually be prevented or well controlled.
Some symptoms or side effects of cancer may be similar to ones caused by dementia. If you are worried about symptoms or side effects the person you care for may be having, talk to the doctor or nurse.
We have more information about managing symptoms and side effects in someone with cancer and dementia,
There are lots of everyday things you can do to help someone living with cancer and dementia.
But if you are a carer for someone, you do not have to cope on your own. Building a support network of friends, family or neighbours can make a big difference.
There are also a number of community health and social care professionals who can support you. The type and amount of support you get will depend on where you live and how the services are organised in your area.
If the person you care for is coming home from a stay in hospital, you should be involved in any discharge planning. You should never be left to take the person home without the right help and support in place.
Admiral Nurses provide specialist dementia support. They work alongside people with dementia and their families, giving them one-to-one support, expert guidance and practical solutions. Most Admiral Nurses work in the community for the NHS, and others work in care homes, hospitals and hospices.
You can find out more about Admiral nurses from Dementia UK.
For some people with advanced cancer, it may not be possible to control the cancer any longer or they may not be well enough to have treatment. In this case, their cancer doctor or nurse will make sure they have treatments to manage any symptoms they may have. This is called palliative care.
Some people may be under the care of a palliative care team when they are first diagnosed with cancer and dementia. Others may be referred to a palliative care team at a later stage.
Community specialist palliative care team
Palliative care teams include specialist nurses and doctors. These teams specialise in controlling pain and symptoms, as well as offering emotional support. They are sometimes based in hospices and can visit people who are being cared for at home.
Community specialist palliative care nurses will work closely with the person’s GP, district nurse and other hospital services. They will tell you more about their services, how to contact them and when they are available.
End of life
Hearing that the person you care for may be near the end of their life can be very difficult and distressing. You may need some time on your own or you might want to talk things through with your partner, a relative or a close friend.
Some people find it easier to talk to someone outside their family, such as a local support group.
We have more information about caring for someone who is dying.
Looking after someone with cancer and dementia can be both rewarding and challenging. It is important to look after yourself as well as the person you care for.
Finding out you that the person you care for has both cancer and dementia can be very upsetting. It is common to feel shocked, frightened or angry about their situation.
Talking to other people about how you feel can be helpful. Some people find it hard to talk to close family and friends. You may like to talk to someone else. You could try a local support group or ask your GP to refer you to a counsellor.
You could also find online communities helpful. These are online groups where other carers share their feelings and experiences. There are a few online communities where you can talk to other people going through the same thing, such as:
Financial help and benefits
Cancer often means extra costs for you and the person you care for. This can include paying for travel to hospital, or increased food or heating bills. If you have to give up work or reduce your hours, your income may fall.
You and the person you care for may be eligible for benefits. A range of benefits are available for full-time carers and people who are still working.
You can call our welfare rights advisers on 0808 808 00 00 to find out more about what benefits you may be able to get.
Working and caring
This may be a difficult time financially. You may have given up work or work part-time so you can be at home.
Finding a balance between work and caring can be difficult, but it is not impossible.