Your feelings when someone close to you has cancer

If someone close to you is diagnosed with cancer, you will probably be feeling lots of different emotions. Whether you’re their partner, family member or friend, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by the news and be anxious about what might happen. You may need support to help you cope with the emotions you’re feeling.

If your partner is diagnosed with cancer, you may feel angry about the situation you’re both in. This can put a strain on your relationship. Talking about how you’re both feeling can help you understand each other and feel closer.

If someone in your family has cancer, everyone in the family may react differently. Responsibilities at home can change and this can cause tension. It’s important to talk openly with each other.

If your friend has cancer, you may be worried about knowing when and how to help. Try asking your friend what they might need.

If someone close to you has cancer

Hearing that someone close to you has cancer can be one of the most emotional times of your life. For many people, it’s a devastating and overwhelming experience. Whatever your relationship with that person, it’s natural to feel a range of emotions.


If your partner has cancer

When your partner has cancer, it can feel like your world has been turned upside down.

You may be concerned about how the diagnosis has affected your partner emotionally as well as physically. They might seem different, perhaps because they are under a lot of stress or in pain, or simply tired. This can put strain on you and your relationship.

There isn’t one single way to cope with cancer. How you and your partner deal with it will depend on your personalities, your relationship, how long you’ve been together, your life experiences (for example, having children together), and how you both cope with challenging situations. It may also depend on how long the person has been diagnosed, any side effects the treatment is causing, and how the condition affects your partner’s day-to-day life.

‘The only way to get through it is by taking one day at a time. You just do what needs to be done and rely on your family and friends.’ Ian

Ian


How you might feel

When one of you is diagnosed with cancer, you and your partner may experience a range of feelings. These can change at different times.

You may be anxious about the future and how you’re going to cope. A cancer diagnosis can take away your sense of security and control. Uncertainty can be one of the most difficult things to deal with. It can cause tension between you and your partner. We have more information about coping with feelings of anxiety when someone close to you has cancer.

You may find that you feel irritable or angry. Anger can sometimes hide other feelings, such as fear or sadness. We have more information about anger and dealing with it.

Your partner may feel guilty about the changes their illness has made to you and your family. You may feel guilty about not being able to manage. You might sometimes feel resentful and angry, even when you know it’s not anyone’s fault. You may then feel guilty for having these thoughts. You may also feel stressed because you’re having to cope with different responsibilities. We have more information to help you if you’re feeling guilty.

Some people cope with serious illness by continuing as if nothing has happened. You may be trying to avoid thinking about what is happening, and just want to carry on as normal. You may be in denial. Your partner may have noticed you are playing down their anxieties or changing the subject. Even though you are just trying to keep things normal, this can make your partner feel more isolated.

At times, you or your partner may want to be left alone. It’s okay to have some time to yourselves to focus your thoughts.

You will both probably find your own ways of dealing with your emotions. Even if you and your partner have very different ways of dealing with the illness, try to be understanding of your each other’s reactions. Try to work together to understand and support each other. It’s important to remember that negative feelings eventually pass, so you’re likely to feel better at some time in the future.

Often partners try to protect each other by not being completely honest about their fears and concerns. However, talking about these things can help you understand each other and feel closer.


If you and your partner are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender

If you are in a same-sex relationship, or if you or your partner is transgender, you may face additional emotional issues when your partner is diagnosed with cancer. It may be that your private or hidden sexuality becomes public for the first time when you’re in hospital or dealing with healthcare professionals. Or, you may both feel that the people you meet during treatment don’t recognise you as a couple. If there are already difficult family relationships, there may be conflict with your partner’s relatives over who is the main support or carer for the person with cancer.

Sometimes, talking about these issues can help you to cope or resolve them. The Lesbian & Gay Foundation has a helpline and email advice service that may be helpful. There is also the PACE website, which has an online community with message boards for talking about sexuality and relationships.

You can also call us on 0808 808 00 00. Our specialists are experts in supporting anyone who is affected by cancer. Or you could join our online community at macmillan.org.uk/community to talk to others.

Cancer can lead to changes in your relationship, home life and sex life. We have more information to help you and your partner if cancer has affected your relationship.


If your family member has cancer

When someone has cancer, it can affect the whole family. All families are different. They vary in size, how they are structured, their relationships with each other, their beliefs and how supportive they are. They also vary in how they communicate with each other and how they handle stressful events. So, each family will respond differently when someone is diagnosed with cancer.

Each person in the family will also experience their own reactions and emotions. For example, young children will cope differently with cancer than older children or adults will. We have more information to help you if you need to talk to children about cancer.

All families have experienced stress or tension before, but something like cancer can test the family in a new way. Everyone in the family may be feeling anxious, sad and tired. This can make any existing relationship problems worse.

People sometimes become withdrawn and won’t talk about their emotions. They may be afraid to show their feelings, or they may feel they have to protect themselves or other people from further distress. However, cancer can also bring families closer together as they deal with the challenge together.

It’s important to talk to each other honestly about how you feel. Not talking can cause tension. Family can be a strong source of emotional support at this time. Talking to each other about what’s going on will help increase the support you can all get.

Everyday responsibilities like family life and work can be hard when you are coping with cancer. You might find it helpful to read our information about managing day-to-day life when you’re affected by cancer.

‘My darling granddaughter drew me pictures, grew me plants and her motto was “together we will beat cancer”.’ Jane

Jane


If your friend has cancer

It’s not only partners and families who are affected emotionally when someone has cancer. You can feel a range of emotions when your friend is diagnosed and as they go through treatment.

If your friend has a really supportive family, it might be hard to know where you fit in or what you should do. Talk to your friend or their family and find out how you can help. Maybe they need someone to talk to, or perhaps you can do practical things, such as find information, run errands or go to the clinic with them. The most valuable thing might be simply visiting and spending time with your friend.

‘I’ve got a wonderful web of very close friends around me. I think it has deepened those relationships. I can have conversations now that I wouldn’t have had before.’ Aamina

Aamina


If you want to help

If you’re not the main carer but want to help in some way, these tips might be a good place to start:

  • Find out if your help is needed by asking the person with cancer. Rather than say, ‘Let me know if I can help’, say, ‘What can I do to help? I’d really like to’.
  • Ask yourself what help might be needed. You could offer to sit with the person with cancer while the main carer is resting. You could pay a social visit, do some laundry, make some meals (check which foods are best), pick up children from school or do the food shopping.
  • Think about which jobs you can do best. If you’re not very good at cooking, don’t offer to help with this. There will be lots of other things you are good at.
  • Offer to do things that you can easily do. Sometimes the smallest things, like weeding the garden, mean the most. If you offer to do everything, you could make the person feel awkward and embarrassed.
  • Check how often you should visit and when it’s convenient. Although you mean well, some people can be overrun with visitors. Spending regular time with your friend, and being reliable about your visits, could be the best way to show how much you care.

If your friend is on their own without family to rely on, your company could be especially helpful in making them feel less lonely and isolated.

In some cases, someone may not have a family supporting them, but they may have a group of very supportive friends. This can cause similar issues as when family members are involved in care. Friends may not agree on what needs to be done, and by who. It might be best if you all sit down with the person with cancer to talk about it and ask them what they want.

If your friend has no one else to look after them, you may feel responsible for their care. It’s not only partners or family members who become carers, so if you provide substantial support to someone with cancer, you may also be classed as a carer.

If your friend begins to need more help, you might feel pressured into doing more for them. You don’t have to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Local authorities and health and social care trusts have responsibilities to arrange services that people need. We have more information about the support available to carers.

If you’re a friend of someone with cancer, we are here for you. Talk to us for more support.

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Emotional support

If you look after someone with cancer, it can be hard to cope with your feelings. It’s important to look after yourself too.