Caring for the carers

When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer it can be a terrible shock. But it's important to remember that the immediate carers and family need support as well as the patient, says Beating Bowel Cancer's colorectal nurse specialist Paula Madden.

The key people supporting the carer can sometimes find it hard knowing what role to play.

From what patients tell me, and from my own experience, what can help are gestures like people dropping around food for you.

Often people will think it's nothing but really that sends a message to the carer that they are thought about, that they are cared about and this will take one thing off their list of things to do.

When you're going through a hard time caring for someone with a difficult illness you don't know sometimes what you're going to need from one day to the next. You really don't look too far ahead.

So this is where friends and family can play a part by physically helping with what would seem to be small things. I had a neighbour come around and offer to cut my rosebush back.

It was a small gesture - you have immediate worries but you can still see that the house is a mess, the cooking's not been done, the washing's not up to date, but they seem trivial.

But when other people come in and say 'I can help you with those', it's bizarre but you can then sit down in a room and see everything clear and tidy and relaxing so you have a better energy in the house.

It also frees you up to be able to have time with your partner, to be able to talk to them about what's happening to them and their family and how they can make plans to make that better.

Friends have got a key role but what often happens with friends is that they dwindle away because they don't know how to help; they think they've got to be a counsellor; they think they've got to say the right thing; that they can never say the wrong thing.

Actually just acknowledging what's happening and providing these tokens of help, such as coming over, is all that's needed.

The extended people undervalue what they can actually do and what a little thing means like making a pot of food and bringing it around.

They don't have to sit down and say exactly the right thing at the right time to make you feel better. And even if they say the wrong thing it's still the fact that they are reaching out to you that has allowed you time to think and talk away from the patient and away from the family.

If you're a carer there are places you can find help and support:

For more information on how you can get support whether you are a patient, a family member or a close friend, visit

Or if you have any concerns or queries, you can also have a confidential chat with one of the charity's Helpline nurses, on 020 8973 0011 or email

Recent research from the charity Beating Bowel Cancer has highlighted the hidden anguish of families and friends of bowel cancer patients in the UK.

It found that bowel cancer doesn't just affect those with the disease but thousands of loved ones, leading to sleepless nights, fear, loneliness and even relationship breakdowns. Families and friends in particular did not feel their support and information needs were met. Over half said they were not met in the year after treatment ended and almost four in ten initially after diagnosis and dealing with the effects.

Each year in the UK around 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer and around 16,000 people die of the disease. But despite such alarming statistics, the good news is that bowel cancer can be successfully treated in over 90 per cent of cases if caught early.


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