Supporting yourself while supporting someone with incurable cancer (Part 1)

"Supporting someone while supporting someone else" in white over a picture of two women's hands clasped together in the garden. One has a wedding ring visible.

A loved one’s cancer diagnosis can have just as large an impact as a personal diagnosis. Our Cancer Information and Support Advisor, Jenna, is here to talk through some of the complicated emotions you might feel, and ways you can help yourself cope.

December is a time where usually we might feel we ‘should’ be feeling positive and festive. I’m conscious that for so many this will be an incredibly difficult time. The shorter days and dark nights, not to mention current restrictions, are likely to have a real impact on our mood and our routines. This can leave many people supporting someone with incurable cancer feeling isolated. I want to reach out with a gentle reminder: although it can feel like it, you don’t have to go through this alone. It is important to look after yourself and remember the immeasurable impact you will be having, just by being there and being you.

Be gentle with yourself

Please remember that there is no right or wrong way to feel right now. Receiving the news that a cancer is incurable, being told your loved one is nearing the end of their life or losing a loved one are some of the hardest things anyone can go through. Everyone will have their different ways of coping with this news.

Please try not to compare yourself and your reactions to those of others. Our reactions to such devastating news factor in our previous experiences and our individual relationship with the person who has been diagnosed. Our views of our self and the world as a whole can also impact how we react. Therefore, even those closest to us will likely react very differently- and that is okay.

I wholeheartedly want to assure you that it is okay to experience those more complex and uncomfortable emotions, such as resentment or relief. This does not make you a bad person or prove that you loved the person any less than you might have thought. It shows that you are human. It shows that going through something like this has caused pain and upset you’d much rather not have had to go through, and that you don’t want someone you love to suffer.

“I wholeheartedly want to assure you that it is okay to experience those more complex and uncomfortable emotions, such as resentment or relief.”

With this in mind, it is also not selfish to think “what about me?’ sometimes. I speak to so many people who feel wracked with guilt about this thought. But for many, a loved one’s illness can mean that they are feeling forgotten or unseen at a time when they need support more than ever. If you’re feeling like this please reach out and talk to someone- a friend, family member- or use us for support. Our Support Line, the Online Community’s “Supporting someone with incurable cancer” group, and local Information and Support Centres are all here to support you.

As this is such a painful experience, you may react in ways which are unexpected or surprising. This can feel unsettling, but again, this is okay. Our behaviour is so often an expression of our needs. So it may be, with a little space and time to reflect, you are able to understand this reaction or behaviour more.

Some can find it hard to accept the reality of the situation, perhaps denying that anything is wrong at all. This can be a difficult response to navigate, especially when other loved ones need different things to cope. It is important to remember that offering shielding and protection is a coping tool in itself. It is important to respect this. It may be with time, when the news has had time to settle, that you can move towards engaging with the reality. But if you have been feeling this way for some time, and it is impacting your day to day life, or impacting necessary caregiving, it may be helpful to speak to your GP so you can be supported.

This is grief. Although you may not have lost the person you love and that loss may be a long time away, for many this news provokes grieving. Whether that’s anticipatory grieving of a time your loved one is no longer here; grieving the time you thought you had and future you had planned; or grieving the freedom that comes with full health. Suffering and grief are relative, and you don’t have to justify inhabiting its space.

“Although you may not have lost the person you love and that loss may be a long time away, for many this news provokes grieving.”

So many people I speak to who are supporting someone with cancer, describe having two conflicting feelings: the thought ‘I need to pull myself together so I can make the most of the time we have’ and feeling as if you want to fall apart. You know best what you need, but often putting all these feelings in a box and shutting the lid until a ‘better’ time can just be too hard and unhelpful. Allowing yourself to express these feelings to those you trust can enable you to be there more fully with the person you are supporting, rather than feeling you are on autopilot or numb.

You might also feel a responsibility to ‘be strong’, thinking this is the best way to help your loved one. Although sometimes this may seem useful, it can be equally valuable for you to show how you feel so they know it is okay to show how they feel too. Remember, showing emotion doesn’t always mean someone is ‘not okay’. They are being honest about what they’re experiencing, and this can actually help in coping. It can also mean you’re both not left wondering how the other ‘really’ feels, which can demand a lot of emotional energy.

In summary, our emotions and reactions are complex and individual to us.  They can often tell us something about what we need, such as a little more support. Ignoring them or trying to push them down, although natural, may not be helpful for us in the long term. Despite your fears, sharing them may also bring you closer to those you are trying to protect.

In part two of this blog which will be posted shorty, I will discuss more ways of coping and taking care of you. In the meantime, please try to treat yourself with the kindness and understanding you would someone you love. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. You’ll be doing the best you can in the difficult situation you are coping with, and that is all anyone can ever ask. 

Take care.

We’d like to thank Jenna for taking the time to write for the Community News blog. If you are supporting a loved one with cancer, please remember that there are others out there who can understand how you feel:

Why not share something that helps you in the comments below?


  • Thank you for writing this. I'm caring for someone with incurable cancer at the moment and everything you've written really rings true. I'll definitely try to be kinder to myself while not shutting down uncomfortable emotions.

  • Thanks for posting this, people tell me all the time to make sure I look after myself but it’s difficult to remember sometimes x

  • Thank you Jenna. The sadness is overwhelming at times and this in itself is exhausting so all reminders to be kind and gentle are gratefully received. Best wishes all.

  • I am a cancer patient. My cancer experience is quite elongated. In the process of receiving and determining treatment everyone’s emotions are running rampant. Those who love the patient and support the patient have a set of thoughts, feelings, and expectations that are all their own. There is definitely a loss which causes the person who is supporting the patient to go through the process of grieving.  This grief causes a range of emotions that can positively or negatively effect The patient and themselves. My suggestion is that the supporter or caregiver process their emotions with another person prior to communicating with the patient. Communication is such a key factor in every area of life, but especially at this time when emotions are running so high. Processing on both sides for the patient and the caregiver with someone else allows for them to have a more concrete idea of what emotions they are experiencing and why. This saves both sides much heartache, frustration, and emotional energy. I know this very much for my own experience. Respectful, kind, loving, and patient communication is key always. God Bless....

  • I particularly like the section about "being strong". It is has been a real trial not being able to visit and now as the first week ends and my wife is coming home tomorrow there are strangely mixed feelings. Joy but also what do I say which will help her. Can I really cope? How much will she want to do? Both of us need rest and acceptance that others must be allowed to help.