You, your partner and the emotional effects of cancer
If you are diagnosed with cancer it is very normal for you and your partner to have many different feelings, but there are ways to manage these emotions that can help.
You and your partner's feelings
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A diagnosis of cancer often causes you to experience a wide variety of feelings. These may include shock, anxiety, sadness, relief, guilt, uncertainty and anger. Some people may also experience depression, a condition where a low mood continues or gets worse. You and your partner may react differently and feel different things at different times.
Many people feel numb, which is a natural effect of shock, and unable to believe what is happening.
Anxiety and uncertainty
You may be anxious about the future, the treatment and how you’re going to cope. When cancer is diagnosed, it can take away your sense of security and control. Feeling uncertain about the future can be one of the most difficult things to deal with. It can cause tension between you and your partner.
Some people deny what is happening and just want to carry on as normal. Doing this may give you some ‘breathing space’. But it can also stop you from getting the treatment you need. You may find that your partner is denying your illness. They may appear to ignore the fact you have cancer, perhaps by playing down anxieties and symptoms or by deliberately changing the subject.
Many people often feel irritable or angry during this time. Anger can hide other feelings, such as fear or sadness. You may direct your anger at your partner because you’re close to them. You may both feel resentful of the changes that the cancer has made to your lives.
Guilt and resentment
Sometimes people feel guilty about the changes their illness has brought. Your partner may feel guilty about not being able to manage or about feeling resentful and angry, even when they know it’s not anyone’s fault. You may feel guilty about not managing the changes that the diagnosis and treatment has brought on you and your family.
There may be times when you or your partner want to be left alone to sort out thoughts and feelings. It may help to reassure each other that even if neither of you wants to discuss your illness at that moment, you will talk about it when you’re ready.
Our information about the emotional effects of cancer includes ways to manage the feelings that a cancer diagnosis can cause.
We also have more information for those close to people affected by cancer about how cancer may affect their feelings.
There are many things you can do that may help you cope with the changes cancer can bring in a relationship.
Exercise and diet
Physical activity helps our bodies release chemicals (endorphins) that lift our mood and lower stress hormones. Even just going for a walk each day may help.
Eating well and keeping to a healthy weight will help you maintain or regain your strength, have more energy, and have an increased sense of well-being. It can also help reduce the risk of new cancers, heart disease, strokes and diabetes.
It may help to use complementary therapies alongside your cancer treatment. They can be a good way of helping you cope with some of the stresses caused by cancer and cancer treatments. Many therapies are relaxing, and having an enjoyable experience may lift your spirits when you aren’t feeling your best. Some complementary therapies can also help to relieve specific symptoms or side effects caused by cancer or its treatments.
You should always check with your doctor before starting a new therapy.
Talk about how you feel
Communication plays a big part in any relationship. Talking about cancer and the impact it has can be an important way to help you both cope with it. But remember, you or your partner may not always want or feel able to talk.
You might find our section about communication helpful.
Speak to others in a similar situation
You may find it useful to share your experiences with others. You can do this in Macmillan’s online community. Your partner may also want to use the community to talk with other people in a similar situation.
You may also want to go along to a support group, either on your own or with your partner. Most cancer support groups welcome partners, carers, family members and friends of people with cancer. Ask your cancer nurse about support groups for people who have the same cancer as you, or search for a group near you.
Write down your feelings
Some people find that it helps to write down how they feel. Keeping a diary may be a way of allowing you to express your fears and worries without having to talk them through. Blogs and social networking sites can be a good way to communicate with people who are going through similar experiences.
If you find it difficult to talk to your partner about certain things, you might want to show them something you’ve written that explains your feelings. Give them the chance to read it, so they can understand your feelings about the situation.
You could also try using one of the tools on the Think about your life website.
Make a plan to do things together with your partner. It could be going for a meal or to the theatre, visiting relatives, or taking a holiday. Not only will you have something to look forward to, but you’ll also have time set aside to be together.
Let your partner know how they can support you
Let your partner know if there are ways you’d like them to support you, or if there are things you’d enjoy doing, either alone or together. It may be that your partner would like to support you in more ways, but they are unsure about what you need from them.
You may find some benefit from you and your partner dealing with your cancer treatment together. It may be useful to have their help when it comes to making decisions or attending appointments. Working with your partner as a team can also be helpful if you have children who need looking after, or extended family you need to keep in contact with.
Use the tool on the opposite page to give them a summary of what is important to you. This could be anything from how you want to spend your time alone or together, things you like to eat or drink or a TV programme you want to watch. In the second column, write down how your partner can support you.
Talk to a professional
You are both likely to find your own way of dealing with your emotions. It’s important to remember that negative feelings and thoughts often pass, so you’re likely to feel better at some time in the future.
You may find it helps to talk to a professional in your cancer team, such as your cancer nurse, about how you are feeling. They can be a great source of support.
If you or your partner find that your feelings are so overwhelming that they stop you from being able to function in your everyday life, or if you’re becoming depressed, then it may be time to seek professional help.
Partners often try to protect each other by not being completely open about their fears and concerns. Sometimes it may help to bring things into the open with the help of a counsellor. It can help you both understand each other and may bring you closer.
There are different types of professional help and therapy available. These include talking to someone, such as your GP or a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychiatrist, or attending a group.
Your GP may put you in touch with a counsellor, or you can contact a counselling organisation. The hospital where you are being treated may also be able to offer you and your partner counselling or support.
Watch our video about the ways counselling can help you and those close to you.