Long-Distance Caregiving for Someone With Cancer

Last updated: February 28, 2010
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When you live far away from a friend or family member who's diagnosed with cancer, it's really tough to know what to do.

Do you jump on a plane? Wait until surgery or other treatment is scheduled and come to help out then? Some people wonder if they should relocate temporarily if a loved one has a terminal diagnosis and not much time left.

There are five questions I hear frequently about long-distance caregiving for cancer. I've also seen some really good advice on this topic coming from Caring.com readers and experts. I thought I'd summarize them here, so people in this situation have somewhere to start.

1. When I hear that someone I love has cancer, should I go home right away?
The answer depends on a lot of factors, but the first thing to consider is how advanced the cancer is. If the person has a stage I, stage II, or stage IIIa cancer, the situation is less urgent, and it's easier to wait and pinpoint when you'll be most useful. If, on the other hand, the person receives a stage IIIb or stage IV diagnosis -- particularly if the prognosis comes in terms of months or even weeks -- you may want to consider re-jiggering your schedule and responsibilities and get home as soon as you can. Receiving news of an incurable and/or terminal cancer can be devastating, and the person you're concerned about may appreciate the emotional support you can provide. Also, many cancer patients go into high gear in terms of making treatment decisions and taking steps to get legal and financial affairs in order, and it can be very useful to have someone trustworthy available to help with the decisions.

2. What's the first step I can take from a distance to help someone with cancer?
When a Caring.com user asked this question, expert Bonnie Bajorek Daneker suggested identifying one or two other people in the person's hometown to help with errands, chores, personal tasks, or anything else that's needed.

3. How can I help my sibling who lives nearby?
When you're a plane ride or five-hour drive away and a sibling lives closer, it's very likely he or she will end up the primary caregiver. And of course if the cancer patient is a parent or an in-law who lives with one of your siblings, that's even more the case. Many of us in this situation feel sort of helpless and left out; like we're watching a drama play out from the sidelines. That doesn't feel good to us, and it doesn't feel great to the sibling in the caregiving hotseat, either. My co-blogger Paula Spencer wrote a great answer to this question from her own experience, in which her sister-in-law and brother cared for her dad in their home. She has some great suggestions for how to pitch in from a distance -- and lend as much support as possible to the sibling who's on the scene.

4.What if I can't come every time there's a crisis?
I'm guessing if you've been caring long-distance for awhile, you've asked this question. Anyone dealing with cancer can be needy, and when people are facing an especially serious diagnosis, they're needier. There's nothing more stressful than getting a call, informing you the situation is serious -- and then trying to sort out how serious because you can't necessarily leave your job or your family right at that moment. Is it possible to find out what's happening from the doctor or another member of the healthcare team? That's one tip from Caring.com's experts; another is to hire a professional caregiver, social worker, or case manager to serve as your stand-in. This person can fill an important role in helping you figure out when the patient's needs are largely emotional -- she's lonely, anxious, and wishes you were there -- and when she really needs your physical presence.

5. I feel so anxious and guilty that I'm not there. How can I feel I'm doing my part and not feel bad all the time? Ah, anxiety and guilt - these are the "terrible twins" of caregiving emotions. When someone we love has cancer, we can't help but feel worried and anxious, and when we can't be there to help 24/7, we feel like we aren't doing enough. And yet we simply can't, and for good reason -- we have lives of our own and responsibilities of our own, and these don't suddenly stop when cancer appears on the scene. "Do what you can and leave the rest" is the mantra the experts counsel, but that's easier said than done. Expert Carol Rosenblatt has some great tips on reducing stress and anxiety and how to feel good about what you can do rather than bad about what you can't.

If you have tips for caring for someone with cancer -- or any other illness -- long distance without feeling crummy, please share them here.

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3 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

about 1 year ago

Thanks everyone for your comments! @Anonymous We're so glad to hear we've been of help to you. Also: Our team is happy to review any comments on this website that you feel are outside the site Terms of Use, Privacy Policy or Code of Conduct (linked from bottom of Caring.com pages). Please contact our Help Desk (via blue feedback tab on right edge of page or "Contact Caring.com" link at bottom of page), or email moderators AT caring.com. Thanks!

Anonymous said about 1 year ago

Thank you so much for much for this column and advice. We've been dealing with my mother-in-law's lymphoma long distance (for part of the time with me in Iraq), and it's taking a toll on us. We're fortunate to have found some local resources that may help (they refered us to Caring.com for some initial reading). I would like to caution other readers in the links listed as "find out what's happening from the doctor" and "tips on reducing stress and anxiety." While there are some extremely helpful responses, many of the responses attack the caregiver/family member posing the question, so much so that I left the pages feeling more guilty about not packing up our lives and moving several states to be with my mother-in-law. I understand the writers are probably speaking from their own pain and fear, but it would probably help if Caring.com would remove these very harmful comments. I'm all for the freedom of speech, but if people what to levy guilt on those of us struggling to make the right, best decisions for ourselves and our families, I'd appreciate it if Caring.com would ask them to do so elsewhere.

about 4 years ago

My best defense against feeling powerless is simply to let people know I'm thinking about them all the time. Sending cards and small gifts produces delight at their end and a strong feeling of satisfaction on my end. But for me, it is tough doing it consistently enough to really make sure they know I care. There are lots of ways to send cards on a regular basis so that there is a steady stream of caring and lots of smiles when they receive a special greeting.

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