The end of the beginning: Caregiving after cancer treatment

The role of the caregiver may change, but not necessarily end, after a loved one has completed treatment for cancer. The road to full recovery can be long and winding, physically and emotionally speaking. The end of treatment brings with it two main concerns; the side effects of the treatment itself, and the fear that the cancer might return.

Side effects of cancer treatment to watch for in a loved one


This is one of the most common side effects; it might improve with time or persist for years, but resting or sleeping do little to relieve it.


·         Sensitiveness at the site of radiation.

·         Pain or numbness in the hands and feet as a result of damaged nerves.

·         Pain in a missing limb or breast.

Memory/concentration issues

These may develop during treatment and linger afterward.


A build-up of fluid in the tissues may cause painful swelling. Again, it can be temporary or long-lasting.

Oral problems

·         Dry mouth.

·         Cavities.

·         Changes in taste.

·         Painful mouth and gums.

·         Infections.

·         Jaw stiffness.

·         Jawbone changes.

·         Trouble swallowing.

Changes in weight

Either weight loss caused by appetite loss, or weight gain that cannot be shed in the usual ways.

Bowel/bladder control issues

Ranging from having some control but having to make numerous visits to the bathroom, to no control at all.

Menopause symptoms

Some women may to stop getting their monthly periods for a while, and others may not get them again at all, resulting in such symptoms as:

·         Hot flashes.

·         Problems with the vagina or bladder.

·         Lack of interest in sex.

·         Fatigue.

·         Sleep problems.

·         Memory problems.

·         Mood swings.

·         Depression.

·         Irritability.

Sexual issues

These may be caused by changes from cancer treatment, the effects of pain medicine, depression, stress, and changes in body image.


A patient who has completed cancer treatment continues to see doctors and specialists during follow-up care. The patient may ask the caregiver to continue to attend these visits. The caregiver should acquiesce to this request not only to provide moral support but also as an opportunity to inform the doctor about the above side effects, should any of them occur.

Concerning the possible return of cancer

Chances are you have already done some or all of these after your loved one was diagnosed with cancer. But if you haven’t, they can help you manage the fear of relapse just as well:

·         Learning as much as you can about the type of cancer with which your loved one was diagnosed.

·         Opening up and facing and expressing such feelings as anger or sadness.

·         Focusing on what you can control and what you can do to help your loved one remain healthy.

·         Staying involved in the care receiver’s follow-up care and helping with lifestyle changes.

 More or less of a caregiver

Like a child actor who has outgrown his cute factor, caregivers may miss the attention they received during the height of their loved one’s cancer. Friends and relatives who used to be fixtures may now make themselves scarce, under the impressions that their help is no longer required – an impression which the caregiver him/herself may or may not promote – and that both caregiver and care receiver will be eager to return to their former lives. But neither scenario is necessarily true.

On the one hand, the caregiver has relied for so long on a support network of family, friends, and healthcare providers that pulling the rug out from under them might leave them lonely, isolated, and disoriented. Just like doctor’s appointments continue for follow-up care, that support network should also remain in place for follow-up help. There are still caregiving duties left to help with, such as driving the care receiver to and from said appointments, or organizing and administering medications. Furthermore, the caregiver may end up so exhausted from active care that they may need assistance with regular, everyday tasks and chores. Even though treatment for cancer has ended, the caregiver might still want to consider the following:

·         Asking for and accepting help.

·         Looking into new and different sources of help.

·         Joining – or not leaving – a support group.

·         Finding respite help.

·         Seeing a professional counselor.

On the other hand, both the caregiver and the care receiver may have become so self-defined by these roles that they may find themselves at a loss as to how to go back to their regular routines. It’s important to realize that you can’t be expected to just pick up where you left off as if nothing has happened; there should be a period of re-adjustment during which to assimilate what has gone one previously. Your friends may be anxious – and so may you for that matter – to relate to you again as was customary before the whole ordeal. However, you should resist pressure – external or internal – to get back to the way you once were overnight. Take your time and set your own comfortable pace. And the same applies to the care receiver. In time, you will ease back into the activities you enjoyed or that were productive both to yourself and to society at large without feeling guilty about it.

In summary, caregivers are often advised to focus on life’s good things, and what could be better than seeing a loved one through cancer treatment? This is a milestone that should be celebrated with friends and family.

Related: Caring for someone with brain cancer: Not like in movies