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Nurses asked to remember needs of cancer carers

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Nurses must be sensitive to the needs of carers and ensure they know how to get support, says a charity in the wake of research revealing the strain on those looking after loved ones with cancer.

The report, published by Macmillan Cancer Support, highlights the difficulties experienced by carers, including so-called “sandwich carers” who are looking after a parent with cancer at the same time as caring for their own children.

“Too often, this ‘sandwich generation’ of carers find themselves pulled in every direction”

Lynda Thomas

It estimates the overall number of cancer carers in the UK has increased by nearly a third in the last five years to more than 1.4 million in 2016.

Almost one in 10 are “sandwich carers” while the majority – 89% – are juggling a job as well as looking after someone with cancer, found the research commissioned from YouGov.

“In extreme cases a person may have to dress, feed and take their parent to the toilet whilst also dealing with the school run, and a full-time job,” said Macmillan chief executive Lynda Thomas.

Lynda Thomas

Lynda Thomas

Lynda Thomas

“Too often, this ‘sandwich generation’ of carers find themselves pulled in every direction by a physically and emotionally draining juggling act that can cause their finances to come under pressure, their working lives to suffer and their own health to bear the brunt,” she said.

“It’s not just sandwich carers that are facing this uphill battle,” she said. “Carers across the UK, looking after their mothers, sisters, brothers or friends, are carrying out more caring tasks and for longer. Many are doing it with a real sense of pride and privilege but this doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.”

The research, which included a survey of nearly 900 cancer carers, found many experienced physical and mental health problems as a result of caring, and a significant proportion reported their income or household finances were affected.

However, more than half – 55% – were not getting any additional support, a figure that has not improved since 2011, said a report on the findings titled Under Pressure – The Growing Strain on Cancer Carers.

Carers who did get support from a health or social care professional were more likely to praise the help they got from nurses and doctors than social services, the survey found.

The poll shows 43% of carers who received support from clinical nurse specialists or hospital doctors rated this as “very good”, compared with 21% of those who received support from a social worker and 18% who received support from other social services or local council staff.

Key issues included the fact many carers do not see themselves as carers or do not know what support is available and can “remain hidden from health and social care professionals who are unaware they are struggling”, said Macmillan.

“Many are doing it with a real sense of pride and privilege but this doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult”

Lynda Thomas

To co-incide with the report, the charity has published a series of tips for nurses when they come into contact with cancer carers.

These urge nurses to “be sensitive” because often people do not realise they are a carer. “To find out if someone is a carer so they can get help, you could ask them if they are ‘looking after’ the cancer patient,” advised Macmillan.

In addition, it called on nurses to be careful not to assume family members can undertake caring roles.

“Remember that some people may not be able, or willing, to provide care for the person with cancer,” state the tips. “It’s important not to make assumptions about who may be a carer, and they shouldn’t feel pressured into taking on the role.”

The tips highlight the key role nurses can play in helping carers get extra support, including pointing them in the direction of sources of information, emotional support and financial help, and reassuring families that it is okay to ask for and receive help.

Nurses should also consider the health of carers who often neglect their own wellbeing and encourage them to see their GP, the charity noted.

Top nine tips for healthcare professionals – nurses

  • Be sensitive – Sometimes people don’t realise they are a carer – they think they are simply looking after someone they love. To find out if someone is a carer so they can get help, you could ask them if they are ’looking after’ the cancer patient.
  • Signpost to services – If you identify a cancer carer let them know that they can access a range of information, emotional support and financial help.
  • Highlight that support is available anytime – Explain that support is available and even if they don’t need it now, it may be helpful in future.
  • Offer reassurance – Some carers may not feel comfortable asking for, or being offered, support. You could reassure them that getting help for themselves can help them to continue in their caring role.
  • Don’t make assumptions – Remember that some people may not be able, or willing, to provide care for the person with cancer. It’s important not to make assumptions about who may be a carer, and they shouldn’t feel pressured into taking on the role.
  • Be aware of financial difficulties – Refer patients to Macmillan’s expert benefit advisers who can help cancer carers understand what they might be entitled to and support them in applying for financial help.
  • Consider the carer’s health – Carers often neglect their own health due to constraints on their time. Encourage them to see their GP for health checks.
  • Ask the right questions – Showing an interest can help carers talk about their needs. If a patient brings a friend, relative or partner with them, ask them how they are.
  • Plan for emergencies – Some local authorities can provide carers with a card to carry which says they are a carer. They can phone a number that triggers an action plan providing emergency substitute support. You could let carers know about this.
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