Personal relationships and cancer - Maggie's Centres

Personal relationships


Cancer and its treatments affect lives in many ways, including personal relationships.

It may primarily be your relationship with your spouse or partner, but it can also include friends and family. You may find roles changing, and be worried how everyone else is coping.

Whether you are the person with cancer, or someone closely involved, you may notice changes in the relationship - some people grow closer as they learn to live with cancer and its treatments. Others sometimes find the stresses and strains push them apart. 

Cancer can also impact on sexual relationships and intimacy. 

The information on this page will help you to find out more about the emotional impact of cancer on your personal relationships. We’ll look at ways to cope with the changes cancer brings to a relationship, and how Maggie’s can help.


Personal relationships explained

A personal relationship can be hard to define – the bonds you form with those closest to you are unique to you. It’s an emotional connection formed by the experiences shared, and feelings of love, trust and companionship.

You may be part of a small or large family, and have friends who are part of your close relationship network.  If you have a partner, then they may be a key part of your day to day life too, sharing the world you live in, and experiencing similar distress when cancer is diagnosed.

It is often at times of crisis that relationships are truly tested. No-one knows how resilient they will be when facing cancer. It’s natural to feel scared about what the future holds, and couples and families often try to protect each other from the emotional turmoil they’re experiencing.  

Stress levels can build up, as normal daily routines are turned upside down by appointments, tests and treatments.  You may be aware of roles changing - the person who is usually strong, may be having to rely on others more. Relationships can sometimes feel more like carer/patient, than an equal partnership.

The effect of treatments and the cancer, can also affect confidence levels.

Tiredness, and other side effects may mean that a physical, intimate relationship is less of a priority - particularly for the person with cancer. This can sometimes lead to feelings of rejection and loss of sexual confidence. 

Children, whatever age they are, will also be affected by what is happening. It may be tempting to protect them from seeing how you feel, but they may be keen to be included in day to day events. 

Friendships can sometimes feel tested when you have cancer. Good friends will rally round, offer help and support, and be there for both the good and bad days. Other friends sometimes don’t know how to handle the situation, and may withdraw.

Personal relationships may change during cancer and its treatments, and there can be grieving for the way things were. Many couples find their relationship strengthens as they face the situation together. Sometimes, relationships fail, as couples struggle with the stress of living with cancer.

Being aware of some of the potential problems can help – as well as knowing where to get additional support.


Managing personal relationships and cancer

Whether it is you, or someone close to you, who has the cancer diagnosis - it’s likely that both of you experienced similar feelings on hearing the news.  Many people feel shocked, scared, and concerned for each other. Here are some tips to help cope with the impact on you as a couple, and as a family:-

  • It’s good to talk: Whilst it’s tempting to hide fears and concerns from each other, silence and withdrawal can be misunderstood.  No-one likes to see someone they love in emotional pain, and it may feel easier to put on a positive front - rather than talk about what you’re both feeling. If you can’t face talking about things, admit that, so that your partner, family and friends can respect your decision.
  • Share problems and worries: When you’re dealing with cancer, life still tends to throw additional worries. It might be financial concerns, work or retirement concerns, the day to day problems that normally you’d solve as a couple. Discussing your worries with each other can help start problem solving and ease stress.  It may be that you need advice, information and support - benefits advice, anxieties about health and nutrition, questions about the future.  Maggie’s centres can help you prioritise your concerns and help you both feel back in control, when things feel difficult.
  • Look out for signs of communication breakdown:  It might be that you find you’re both snappy with each other, being critical, saying hurtful things, or sitting in hostility and silence.  Acknowledge when tensions are high, and recognise that is a symptom of the stress you’re both under. 
  • Try and have some normal, non cancer time, each day: It might be watching TV together, and having normal daily routines that feel familiar and comforting. Laughter and humour can help ease tension, when it is shared together.
  • It’s OK to grieve for the life pre cancer:  New routines may have temporarily or permanently entered your lives. Whilst you both look forward to a time when cancer is behind you, there may be days when you miss the way things were before. It makes sense to talk about this, and share any sadness about the changes you’re experiencing.
  • Find support:  Living with cancer can bring stresses and strains that test the most resilient relationship.  Tensions can mount, and you may find you’re feeling guilt, anger, frustration and hurt. If the situation is building up, you may need additional support to help you deal with the emotional impact on your relationship. This can be through counselling, talking things through with someone you trust, and meeting others who understand the stress you’re all under.  Drop into your local Maggie’s Centre, and ask about ways to manage your feelings, through talking, stress management, and family support.
  • Talk to those closest to you: Children, family and friends are all part of your personal relationship network.  Let them know what is going on, what they can do to help, and how best they can support you. Trying to protect others from how you feel can take considerable effort.  Let them know if it would help to talk about anything but the cancer for a while - you’re still you, and not defined by the health condition you’re facing.

When to seek further help

With so much going on in your life, you may find that you or those closest to you, are feeling anxious, panicky or depressed. The feelings can be overwhelming, and it can help to talk about how you feel with your doctor and healthcare team.

If your relationship is struggling with the pressures of cancer and its treatments, seek support early.  Finding out that what you’re experiencing is common amongst people in a similar position can relieve the pressure. Joining forums, support groups and contacting an organisation like Relate, or visiting your local Maggie’s Centre, can help you feel less alone. 

If you’re a carer, and you’re finding relationship problems and tensions are causing you anxiety and worry - let someone know. You can contact local carer support groups, for advice and support. 70% of carers experience emotional and psychological distress, and that includes personal relationships. 


What now?

Have a look at our blogs and links on this page to find out more personal relationships and cancer.

Talk with others about what you are experiencing. It can help to hear that what you’re feeling is not unusual, and help you feel less alone.  Call into your local Maggie’s Centre, or join our online forums to  talk to our cancer support specialists and to connect with others in a similar position to yourself.


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