Relationships with people close to you when you have advanced cancer
Partners, family and friends are a vital source of help and support when you’re coping with advanced cancer. But it’s common to find it upsetting or painful to talk about your illness with those close to you.
In many cases, people close to you may be waiting for you to let them know how much you want to talk about your illness and your treatment.
When serious illness affects relationships, many people are unsure how to respond. Some may try to avoid you rather than risk saying the wrong thing. Some people may avoid discussing your illness or may seem unsympathetic.
Going through something like this is incredibly bonding. We’ve sat up in the middle of the night with pots of tea and tears, and we’ve laughed and cried together. It’s made us value each other in a way we didn’t know was possible
If you have a partner, you may find that the stresses of an uncertain future or the difficulties and side effects of treatment put a strain on your relationship. There may be times when you don’t get on well together. Some couples find that problems are harder to resolve because they feel they have less time to consider compromises.
Talking about your feelings with your partner can help support you both. Some people find their relationship becomes stronger if they can be open about feelings.
Giving yourselves short breaks from each other may help relieve stress. Sometimes talking to someone else can help perhaps a relative, friend or someone completely outside your situation, like a counsellor.
Watch our video about relationships
Ron and Linda talk about how they coped when Ron was diagnosed with cancer.
When someone becomes ill, it can affect their ability to feel good about their sexuality. How advanced cancer affects you and your sexuality will depend on the type of cancer you have. Treatment and side effects can also have an impact. But having cancer doesn’t have to mean an end to your sexuality.
Sex can still be part of your life if you have advanced cancer, although you may find that you and your partner need a period of readjustment. For example, even if you don’t feel like having sex, there are intimate and affectionate ways of showing how much you care about each other.
Partners may sometimes mistakenly worry that having sex could harm you or make the cancer worse, or that they could catch the cancer. Try talking openly with your partner about difficulties or concerns about your sex life. This can help sort out any misunderstandings.
Although it can be embarrassing to talk about at first, most people find it helpful to get some support. Your GP, specialist nurse or hospital doctors will be used to having these types of conversations and may be able to help. There are also a number of organisations that can help couples who are having problems with their sex life.
Our section on cancer, you and your partner may provide some helpful information.
Dr Isabel White talks about some of the possible effects cancer and its treatment can have on your sexuality.
Children and grandchildren
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It can be very difficult to talk to your children or grandchildren about cancer. It’s probably best to be honest with them and tell them your cancer has come back or spread. Even very young children will sense when something is seriously wrong. However much you want to protect them, if you pretend everything’s fine, they may feel they have to keep their worries to themselves. Their fears may be worse than the reality.
How and what you tell them will depend on their age and how much they can understand. It may be a good idea to choose to tell them at a time when you and your partner, relatives or close friends can all be together. Then the children will know there are other adults they can share their feelings with and who will support them.
Children of any age may worry that you’re going to die. If your cancer is likely to be controlled for a long time, it’s important to tell them this. If the cancer is more advanced, it’s helpful to sensitively prepare them for your death. Obviously this can be a very difficult thing to do and you may need help and support.
Teenagers may find it particularly difficult, because they’re going through a lot of emotional changes themselves. You may need them to take on more responsibilities around the home at a time when they’re looking for more independence. If they’re finding it hard to talk to you, encourage them to talk to someone close who can support them, such as a relative or family friend. They may also find it useful to look at the website riprap.org.uk which is for teenagers who have a parent with cancer.
Friends and colleagues
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Some friends and colleagues will feel unsure about how to talk to you. They may leave it is up to you to make the first move. It’s up to you to tell them as much or as little as you want about your health. You may not want to talk about your cancer all the time, and you may rely on your friends to carry on as usual and distract you.
They will probably welcome it if you can tell them what you want or need from them. This might be help around the house, or asking them to drive you to hospital appointments.
Our section on being there for someone with cancer has tips for friends and colleagues on how they can offer you practical support.
If you don’t want to talk
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There may be times when you don’t feel like talking and want to be on your own. Don’t feel that you have to see people if you don’t want to or if you need time to yourself.
Allow other people to go to the door or answer the phone for you. If you’re in hospital, you may want to limit the number of visitors you have. You can ask a relative or the nurses to help you with this.
There is no right or wrong way to face this situation. Each person has to try to deal with it in their own way and at their own pace.