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Cancer Health Center

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Family Caregivers in Cancer: Roles and Challenges (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Overview

Approximately 1.6 million new cases of cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States in 2014.[1] Many patients diagnosed with cancer will eventually require support from a family caregiver. In fact, family caregivers form the foundation of the health care system in the United States, supporting advances in treatment such as multimodality treatment protocols given in outpatient and home settings.[2]

Definition: Who Is the Caregiver?

Recommended Related to Cancer


Note: Separate PDQ summaries on Oral Cancer Prevention and Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment are also available. Benefits There is inadequate evidence to establish whether screening would result in a decrease in mortality from oral cancer. Magnitude of Effect: No evidence of benefit or harm. Study Design: Evidence obtained from one randomized controlled trial. Internal Validity: Poor. Consistency: Not applicable (N/A). External...

Read the Overview article > >

Also referred to as informal caregivers, family caregivers provide a complex array of support tasks that extend across physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional domains.[3] Generally speaking, more women than men become caregivers, most caregivers are related to the person who has cancer, and most caregivers are aged 55 years or older.[4,5]

Family caregivers play an important role in the management of cancer; enlisting their cooperation and including them as the unit of care from the outset are considered critical ingredients to effective cancer management. Most oncology teams recognize this and try to include family caregivers in treatment planning, decision making, and implementation.[6] However, for interventions to be feasible, they must be appropriate within the constraints of busy oncology practices and service delivery environments.[7] Short-term hospital admissions may also restrict the time available to implement supportive strategies for caregivers.

Information about the following is included in this summary:

  • An overview of the caregiver's perspective across the illness trajectory in cancer.
  • Typical caregiver roles and concerns.
  • Helpful interventions.

In this summary, unless otherwise stated, evidence and practice issues as they relate to adults are discussed. The evidence and application to practice related to children may differ significantly from information related to adults. When specific information about the care of children is available, it is summarized under its own heading.


  1. American Cancer Society.: Cancer Facts and Figures 2014. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2014. Available online. Last accessed March 26, 2014.
  2. Schumacher KL, Stewart BJ, Archbold PG, et al.: Effects of caregiving demand, mutuality, and preparedness on family caregiver outcomes during cancer treatment. Oncol Nurs Forum 35 (1): 49-56, 2008.
  3. Honea NJ, Brintnall R, Given B, et al.: Putting Evidence into Practice: nursing assessment and interventions to reduce family caregiver strain and burden. Clin J Oncol Nurs 12 (3): 507-16, 2008.
  4. Alecxih LMB, Zeruld S, Olearczyk B: Characteristics of Caregivers Based on the Survey of Income and Program Participation. National Family Caregiver Support Program: Selected Issue Briefs. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, 2001.
  5. Sherwood PR, Given BA, Given CW, et al.: Predictors of distress in caregivers of persons with a primary malignant brain tumor. Res Nurs Health 29 (2): 105-20, 2006.
  6. Glajchen M: The emerging role and needs of family caregivers in cancer care. J Support Oncol 2 (2): 145-55, 2004 Mar-Apr.
  7. Hudson PL, Aranda S, Kristjanson LJ: Meeting the supportive needs of family caregivers in palliative care: challenges for health professionals. J Palliat Med 7 (1): 19-25, 2004.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

    Last Updated: May 28, 2015
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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