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Who Cares for Cancer Patients’ Caregivers?


International Cancer Survivors Day is celebrated during June, placing the spotlight not only on cancer survivors, but also their caregivers.

“It’s emotionally and physically taxing at times to provide care to a person living with cancer,” says Lisa Strydom, National Manager: Care and Support Programmes of the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA). “In most cases the caregiver is a family member or friend who volunteers to look after the patient.”

Typical duties of a caregiver might include helping to bathe or dress someone, taking care of household chores, meals, or bills, managing medications, or talking to doctors and nurses on someone’s behalf. In many situations, family members or friends of cancer patients take on the role of caregiver.

Strydom says caregivers, faced with the severity of the patient’s situation, often neglect their own needs, and focus only on caring for their loved one. This can lead to caregivers own physical and mental health deteriorating, experiencing symptoms, such as, chronic fatigue, depression, irritability, headaches, stomach aches, nausea, lack of appetite or overeating, and trouble sleeping.

Ronni Goodier van der Byl was her husband’s primary caregiver during his 11-month cancer journey until he passed away. “Only after he passed, did I learn that we should have talked about what was happening to him, including our fears, sorrow, and losses. We skirted around the fact that he was probably not going to survive.”

Van der Byl says she was able to be at home caring for him 24/7 and would do that again in an instant. However, when she herself was diagnosed with cancer five years later, she chose not to have a caregiver and rather tackle the disease on her own. Her treatment included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Van der Byl has just passed her three-year mark after surgery and a scan in January this year was clear. Luckily, she did have friends who popped in regularly to see how she was. “They brought homemade chicken soup and fresh flowers and kept quiet company while I slept away large chunks of the day,” she says.

It worries Strydom that some caregivers suffer in silence. “When providing care to a cancer patient over an extended period of time, it’s important for caregivers to take care of themselves.”

Ronni Goodier van der Byl

This includes having consistent emotional support and counselling, taking breaks, maintaining a balanced lifestyle, accepting that they cannot do everything perfectly all the time, being prepared to ask for help, learning as much as possible about cancer, and celebrating small victories.

“Should caregivers not have family or friends they can reach out to, and cannot afford counselling, for example, they can contact CANSA for free guidelines and support,” she adds.

“CANSA has published detailed guidelines for caregivers on our website. We also run a confidential and free tele counselling service for cancer patients and their family members, as well as for caregivers.”

CANSA knows it’s not easy for family members and friends to know what to say and what to do when supporting a loved one or a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes it’s more challenging to know what to do or say when the person is a workplace colleague or an employee; colleagues and employees are often not friends, and the relationship is a bit more formal. Finding the right words is sometimes very difficult, as the colleague or employer wants to be supportive in a respectful manner.

According to Strydom, “To assist, CANSA has compiled a list of tips and guidelines of support, which will be suitable in the workplace, available on our website.

In addition, CANSA has also created support groups for caregivers on Facebook and other platforms, and support is also available at CANSA’s Care Centres. “These support groups introduce cancer patients and caregivers to others who are in a similar situation to them. Very often, just sharing common experiences can make a significant positive difference in these people’s lives,” says Strydom.

Lizelle Petzer-Pettison, a member of a CANSA WhatsApp support group wrote to another member recently, “I’m so sorry that you are feeling this way and it’s normal to feel this way. We don’t judge on this group. We support one another. Don’t feel bad or guilty about this. Caring for a loved one takes a lot out of a person.”

Cancer caregivers are also recognised and acknowledged by cancer survivors and -patients, as part of a ‘Caregiver’ ceremony or lap of honour at CANSA Relay For Life events (



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