People close to you when you have advanced cancer
Having cancer doesn’t make you a different person. You still need love and companionship. You may find that family, partners and friends become even more important to you and are a vital source of help and support.
In many cases your partner, children, parents, friends and colleagues may be waiting for you to let them know how much you want to talk about your illness and your treatment.
People who have cancer sometimes feel that a lot of responsibility lies with them, and that this is very unfair. It can seem as though you’re the one who has to be strong. If you’re finding it difficult to talk about how you feel or to say what’s on your mind, our booklet Talking about your cancer has suggestions that can help.
When serious illness affects relationships, many people are unsure how to respond. You may find that people react in unexpected ways. Some may try to deny the significance of the situation, preventing you from showing how you feel. Others may try to avoid you rather than risk saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Some people may avoid discussing your illness or may seem unsympathetic. People close to you may become overprotective. Sometimes loved ones try to protect each other from the truth, even though both are aware of what’s really happening.
Talking about your feelings with your partner can help to support you both through times of sadness, worry and uncertainty. You may find that your relationship becomes stronger and you can face the challenge of your illness together if you can both be open about your feelings. When words fail you or seem inadequate for a particular moment, just being together or having a hug can say as much, and sometimes more, than words.
There may be times when you don’t get on well together. The stresses of an uncertain future or the difficulties and side effects of treatment can put a strain on your relationship. You may find that problems are harder to resolve because you feel you have less time to consider compromises.
Anger can be a common problem for you both. It may help to relieve the stress if you give yourselves short breaks from each other. Sometimes talking to someone else - perhaps a friend, relative or someone completely outside your situation, like a counsellor - can help. If you think this would help, perhaps you could talk it over with your partner.
Our section called cancer, you and your partner addresses some of these issues.
There’s no medical reason to stop having sex because you have cancer. Cancer can’t be passed on, and sex won’t make your cancer worse. In fact, a sexually loving relationship can be a source of comfort and support.
You may find that your illness has no effect on your sex life. On the other hand, you may find that you can’t or don’t want to have sex as you did before you were ill. This may be because of the physical effects of the cancer or its treatment, or because your worries make it difficult to feel enthusiastic about sex.
Your partner may also have concerns about your illness and its effect on your physical relationship, perhaps a fear of hurting you while having sex. But it’s still safe to have sex if you want and feel able to. With support and communication you can enjoy a fulfilling sex life.
There are many ways of sharing love and finding satisfaction. If you can be honest and open with your partner, you can help each other to find ways of expressing your love. Intercourse is not the only kind of physically satisfying sex. Slow, sensual touching, stroking and kissing bring as much, and sometimes more, enjoyment. Cuddles and affectionate kisses can also show how much you care for someone, even if you don’t feel like having sex.
You don’t need to feel guilty or embarrassed about asking for professional advice if you are having sexual problems. People with cancer have as much right to an active and satisfying sex life as anyone else. Your doctor or nurse may be able to advise you directly, or they can refer you and/or your partner for specialist counselling, if you think that would be helpful.
You may find it helpful to look at our section on sexuality and cancer.
It is never easy and can be very painful to talk to your children or grandchildren about cancer. It’s probably best to be honest with them and to tell them that your cancer has come back or spread. Even very young children will sense when something is seriously wrong. However much you want to protect your children, if you pretend to them that everything is fine, they may feel that they have to keep their worries to themselves. Their fears may be worse than the reality. They may feel isolated and excluded and unable to tell you how sad and upset they are.
Children may feel that they are in some way responsible for an adult’s illness. If you can discuss your cancer with them, you can reassure them that no-one is to blame.
How and what you tell your children 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, your partner, relatives or close friends can all be together. The children will then know that there are other adults they can share their feelings with and who will support them.
There’s no need to go into too much medical detail. You can just explain simply about your illness and the treatment you are having. It may be helpful to warn your children about how they may be affected - for example, that there will be days when you feel too ill or tired to be able to play with them or join in their activities. If you have to go back into hospital, you can tell them how often you would like them to visit you and that they can always call, email or text you. If you talk a bit about your feelings, this may help them to express theirs.
Children of any age may worry that you are 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 the children for your death. Obviously this can be a very difficult thing to do and you may need help and support.
You may find it helpful to look at our section on talking to children.
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 Rip Rap website - a website 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 and may leave it up to you to make the first move.
A quick phone call or email will show that you are keen and able to keep up social contact. You could start by saying something like, ‘I’m afraid I’ve had some bad news about my cancer, but the treatment seems to be going well (or ‘I still feel quite well’) and I would like to get out and see you.’
When you contact people, just tell them as much or as little as you want about the details of your health.
Obviously you won’t 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, whether it’s help in the house, regular visits for a chat, their company on an outing or driving you to hospital appointments.
There may be some friends or family members who back away from you because they feel that they can’t cope with the situation. This can be very painful. If your attempts to make contact have been rejected, you may have to try to accept that they feel this way and that there’s nothing more you can do about it. However, it’s important to realise it’s not your fault - they are doing this because of their own difficulties in dealing with your circumstances.
If you don't want to talk
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There may be times when you simply don’t want to see people and just want to be on your own. There may also be some well-meaning friends whose reactions to your illness upset you. You can allow other people to protect you - for example, let someone else 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. Don’t feel that you have to see people if you don’t want to or if you need time to yourself.