Relationships and advanced cancer

Your partner, family and friends can all offer support when you are coping with advanced cancer. But it can be very upsetting or painful to talk about your illness with people you are close to.

Family and friends

Your family and friends may be unsure if you want to talk about your illness and treatment. They may wait for you to talk about it. Some people may avoid talking about your illness, or try to avoid you because they are worried they may say the wrong thing.

Talking about a difficult situation is not easy. But talking can help you and your family and friends cope with your situation. And you may find that talking brings you closer together. We have information about talking about cancer which you may find helpful.

We also have information to help your family and friends talk about your illness and support you.

Your partner

If you have a partner, you may find the uncertainty of the future, or side effects of treatment, can affect your relationship. Sometimes partners try to protect each other. They avoid talking about the illness as they do not want to upset the other person. But talking about what is happening and how you both feel can help you both feel less alone. You might also find that being open about the situation and your feelings strengthens your relationship.

It may help you and your partner to keep to a normal routine as much as possible. Having a routine can help when you are dealing with a difficult situation.

There may be times when you do not get on well. Some couples find that problems are harder to deal with because they feel they have less time.

For some couples, having a short break from each other can help relieve stress. Or you may find other ways to manage stress that work better for you. For example, doing some physical activity or listening to some relaxing music may help. Talking to someone outside of your situation may also help. This may be a family member, friend, health professional or counsellor.

We have more information about cancer and relationships.

Sex life

Having advanced cancer can affect how you feel about sex and intimacy. This may depend on the type of cancer you have, or any treatment and side effects.

Sex can still be part of your life if you have advanced cancer. You may find that you need to make some changes. Getting used to this can take some time. You may not feel like having sex, or you may be unable to. But there are still ways of showing how much you care about your partner.

You may feel less attractive, or worry that a partner finds you less attractive. A partner may worry that having sex could harm you or make the cancer worse. This is not the case. Talking openly about your concerns can help sort out any confusion. This can also give you the chance to talk about what you can each do to enjoy sex.

It can be embarrassing to talk about. But many people find it helpful to get some support. Your GP, specialist nurse or hospital doctors may be able to help you have these types of conversations with your partner.

There are also organisations that can help people who are having problems with sex and relationships. These include:

Your GP, practice nurse, community nurse, or palliative care nurse may also be able to help you find support locally.

It is important that you do not get pregnant, or make someone pregnant, during and for a time after some treatments. This is because some treatments and tests can be harmful to a baby in the womb. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can give you advice if you need more information about this.

We have more information about cancer and sex.

Children and teenagers

You may not know what to say to children about the cancer. Many hospices have family or carer support services that offer support to families of people with advanced cancer. Your community nurse, palliative care nurse or GP may be able to refer your family, including children, for this service.

We have information about talking to children and teenagers about cancer.

Other people

Some people may feel unsure about how to talk to you. They may wait for you to talk about your situation before they say anything.

You can tell people as much or as little as you want to about your health. You can also tell them how you would like them to treat you and whether you want to talk about your situation or not. You might find it helpful to plan answers to any questions. This can help guide the conversation the way you would like.

Other people may find it helpful if you can tell them how they can help you. For example, you could suggest helping you with housework, or driving you to hospital appointments. Or you could ask them to organise something for you to do together, to help take your mind off your situation.

If you do not want to talk

There may be times when you want to be on your own. This is natural.

If you want to have some time alone, you could ask other people to answer the door or phone for you. Tell others you may not be able to respond to texts or emails straightaway. And explain gently if you would rather people did not get in touch for a while.

If you are in hospital, there may be limits on the number of visitors you can have because of hospital rules. But if you only want certain people to visit, talk to the staff on the hospital ward.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our advanced cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Health Improvement Scotland/ NHS Scotland. Scottish Palliative Care Guidelines. Available from [accessed Nov 2021].

    NICE. End of life care for adults: service delivery. NICE guideline NG142 [Internet]. 2019. Available from [accessed Nov 2021].

    NICE. Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer. Cancer service guideline CSG4 [Internet]. 2004. Available from [accessed Nov 2021].

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Viv Lucas, Consultant in Palliative Medicine.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 October 2022
Next review: 01 October 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.