Long distance caregiving

How can you help a loved one diagnosed with cancer?


It is common for a family to be spread out across the country – even in other countries. Whether it is a parent, sibling or relative diagnosed with cancer, caring for a person with cancer who lives far away has unique challenges. Even if you cannot be physically present, there are ways to offer caregiving, regardless of your location. The term “Long Distance Caregiver” is often used for anyone who provides some form of physical, emotional, spiritual, financial or logistical support to a person with a serious illness, though they live at a distance from the person needing care.

Helpful considerations

  • Prioritize your time and budget. Determine when it’s most important to be physically present or when you can provide help from a distance.
  • Be clear about your role when coordinating with others. Relationships can be challenged, especially when many people are involved in caring for someone.
  • Introduce yourself. Call the health care team members involved in the care of the person with cancer to introduce yourself and let them know that you play a key role in providing care. Give them your phone number(s) and other contact information in case they need to reach you.
  • Help with legal documents. If your loved one hasn’t designated who will act on his/her behalf in times of incapacity, suggest and help with legal documents such as a living will or power of attorney. Secure proper authorization to allow you or a local caregiver to gather copies of medical and treatment records (including operation reports and x-rays) for your loved one’s personal files. This will help with follow-up care plans and future medical needs.
  • Be respectful. Remember that this is about your loved one’s body— and these are his or her decisions to make, not yours. Your loved one is the expert in this cancer experience, especially with respect to what she/he feels, what is important to her/him, and what she/he wants. Your role as a distance caregiver is to help frame important questions that will help with decisions about treatment and recovery, and to let your loved one know that you care.

What can you do from afar?

Caregiving can continue for a lengthy period of time and can include periods when care needs are intense or periods when the care needs are minimal. To assist a loved one with cancer, many things can be done from afar, such as:

  1. Gathering cancer treatment and post-treatment information through contacts, internet research and phone calls.
  2. Use organizational skills to keep track of appointments, health insurance documents and medical bills.
  3. Making arrangements with neighbors/friends to help with transportation, household chores or meals, or work with agencies like Cleaning for a reason that provide cleaning services. For meals, contact Meals on Wheels.
  4. Keeping family and friends updated. There are patient websites such as CarePages to keep others informed.
  5. Making visits and offer respite to local caregivers.
  6. Offer emotional support either by phone, Skype, Facetime or email.

Holidays are meant to be joyful times. But for the person whose life has been affected by cancer, special occasions may stir up different feelings. Caregivers may also feel worried or sad about an upcoming holiday and it may be challenging to keep up with the preparations associated with celebrating.

Do you have any other tips to help others caring for a loved one with cancer? We would love to hear from you, feel free to leave a comment.

Take the next step:

  • Read these articles on caregiving from CancerCare, the American Cancer Society and the Cancer Support Community.
  • Download this PDF from the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center. It lists several pages of resources for caregivers.
  • Still have questions? Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an e-mail.

Updated 11/25/15


2013 annette 1The Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.