Caring Currents

Long-Distance Caregiving for Someone With Cancer

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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 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 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.

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'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.