Practical tips for caring for someone with cancer
The person you look after may need help with their personal care. You can get help and support from different health and social care professionals.
How much you do, and what care you provide, may change over time. You may do less if they have finished cancer treatment and are recovering. Or you may do more if their cancer becomes more advanced.
The healthcare team can help you understand what to expect over time. As the person’s situation changes, the team can give you information and support when you need it.
You can get help and support with personal care from different health and social care professionals. Family, friends, and neighbours may also be happy to help if the person you look after is comfortable with this.
Some of the things you may need to do may make you, or the person you look after, feel uncomfortable. If this is the case, talk to the healthcare team. They may be able to arrange other services to help.
It is important that others provide personal care in a way that respects the needs of the person you look after. Make sure that others address the person you care for in the way they prefer and identify with.
The care should be supported by their needs assessment and care and support plan if they have one.
The social worker or district nurse may be able to arrange a care worker to help with bathing.
Or they can show you how to do it yourself. Having a regular wash, shower or bath can prevent skin problems or infections. It can also help the person feel more comfortable.
Try to follow these tips:
- Keep to their usual routine and use products they like.
- Be safe – check the water is not too hot or cold and the floor is not wet.
- Be sensitive to feelings and mindful of their privacy and dignity.
- Allow them to safely do what they can.
- Use equipment to help, such as a shower seat or chair at the basin.
- Loose clothes may feel more comfortable.
- Clothing with elastic waistbands can be easier to get on and off.
- If the person feels hot or cold easily, layers that can easily be taken off and put back on are a good idea.
- Clothes that are easy to wash and dry and do not need much ironing may be more practical.
If the person you are caring for has hair loss due to cancer treatment, you should follow the advice of their cancer team. We also have information about hair loss and caring for hair during and after cancer treatment.
These tips might help:
- Use a plastic hair-washing tray if they cannot get out of bed easily.
- Use a rinse-free, waterless shampoo or shampoo cap that goes directly on their hair. You remove the shampoo by drying their hair with a towel.
Your local pharmacy can give you more information about these products. If the person needs a haircut, you could try to find a hairdresser or barber who does home visits.
Some cancer treatments affect a person’s nails and make them more brittle. The nurses at the hospital can also give you advice. Chiropodists and podiatrists are professionals that treat foot problems. They can often make home visits.
The GP can arrange a referral to a chiropodist. This service is not always free, so check first. If the person you are caring for is diabetic, always ask a chiropodist to cut their toenails. Some voluntary groups may provide manicures or pedicures at home.
We have more information about looking after skin and nails.
If the person you look after needs help to go to the toilet, it may be best for their room to be close to the bathroom.
A raised toilet seat may make going to the toilet safer and more comfortable. If they find getting to the toilet difficult, they might want a urine bottle by the bed. Or they could use a chair with a toilet hidden underneath called a commode.
The occupational therapist (OT), social worker or district nurse may be able to provide these. You can also hire them from the Red Cross or buy them. It is important that the person has privacy when using a bottle or commode.
It can be difficult if the person you are caring for has problems with leaking from the bowel or bladder (incontinence).
A district nurse can give you advice about:
- protective bed covers
- urinary sheaths
- pads or pants.
They can also usually refer you to a continence adviser, who can give advice about different products you can use. Adult social care may be able to provide laundry services.
You can get more information about products and services from:
The person you are caring for may need your help to stand or walk. Ask a physiotherapist, OT or district nurse for advice on doing this safely and how to prevent injuries.
They can provide standing or walking aids. They can also do a falls assessment to help you prevent a fall.
Tips on standing and walking
- Make sure there is good lighting inside the house, especially on stairs.
- Make sure there is nothing on the floor that the person you care for can trip on, such as cables or clutter.
- Use non-slip mats or rugs.
- Make sure you both wear comfortable, well-fitting shoes with a good grip.
If the person you are caring for is on their own some of the time, a personal alarm may be a good idea. It allows them to call for help by pressing a button worn around their neck or wrist to call a 24-hour response centre.
The response team can alert someone to help. Carers UK has information about these alarms and other technology that can help you and the person you look after.
The person you are caring for may need help moving or turning. The physiotherapist, OT or district nurse can show you how to do this safely so you do not hurt yourself or the person you look after.
Or you might need a hoist to lift the person up so you can position them and gently lower them into a chair or bed.
Avoiding pressure sores
When a person is not able to move around much, they have a higher risk of pressure sores. These are most common on the bottom, back or heels in people who are in bed or sitting in the same position for long periods.
To avoid this, the person you look after needs to change how they are sitting or lying regularly. If they cannot do this on their own, a district nurse can show you how to move them. They can also provide a pressure-relieving mattress and cushion, and ankle or elbow pads to reduce the risk of pressure sores.
Gently massaging the person’s back, arms or legs with moisturising cream keeps their skin soft.
Your local Carers Trust carers’ centre may offer training in first aid and moving and handling. You could also speak to the GP or district nurse.
You may need to help the person you look after take their medicines. Make sure they take them exactly as their cancer doctor, specialist nurse or GP has prescribed.
- that their name and medicine are correct on the label
- the expiry date
- when it should be taken
- how to take it, such as with food, or after food.
If you need advice and information about medicines, ask your local or hospital pharmacist.
You may find it helpful to use a pill organiser (dosette box) or calendar blister pack for regular medicines. Both have separate compartments for tablets, showing the day and time they should be taken.
A calendar blister pack is prepared by the pharmacy. Talk to the GP or pharmacist about getting one of these.
It is important that you also know about any medications that is are taken “as required” and how and when to use them.
Prescriptions are free in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, prescriptions are free for people with cancer.
If the person you care for needs a prescription for anything related to cancer or its effects, you can apply for an exemption certificate. You need to fill in a form called an FP92A, and get it signed by the GP. You can collect one of these from the GP surgery or hospital clinic.
If the person you look after is registered for patient online services with their GP, you can order repeat prescriptions through the NHS website.
Using a medication planner
A medication planner is a good way to keep a record of what needs to be taken and when. We have a medication planner that you may find helpful to download.
This planner was developed with help from Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacists.
You may have some questions about your medication. Our Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacists are specially trained to:
- answer your questions about medication
- listen to your concerns and provide emotional support.
We have more information about finding a Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacist near you.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our looking after someone with cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Supporting adult carers committee. Supporting Adult Carers: NICE guideline [NG150] Published: 22 January 2020. Available from https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng150 (accessed May 2022)
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. People's experience in adult social care services committee. People's experience in adult social care services: improving the experience of care and support for people using adult social care services: NICE guideline [NG86] Published: 20 February 2018. Available from https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng86 (accessed May 2022)
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
The language we use
We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.
We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:
- use plain English
- explain medical words
- use short sentences
- use illustrations to explain text
- structure the information clearly
- make sure important points are clear.
We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.
You can read more about how we produce our information here.
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