Supporting my partner with cancer
When your partner has cancer, you might find it hard to cope. Talk to them about how to support them. It may help you understand each other and feel closer.
When your partner has cancer, it can feel like everything has changed. You may have many different feelings.
You and your partner will probably find your own ways of coping with your feelings. Even if you have different ways of dealing with the illness, try to understand and support each other.
You might try to protect them by not being honest about your fears and concerns. But talking about your feelings may make it easier for your partner to be honest about theirs. It may also help you understand each other and feel closer.
Here are some tips on how you can support your partner:
- Talk to each other about how you feel and what is important to you.
- Be aware that you may both have many difficult feelings and that these are all normal.
- Make time for each other. Do things you enjoy and talk about things other than cancer.
- Work out how you cope as a couple. For example, you might laugh or cry together to help release tension.
- If you need help with your relationship, you may find it helpful to talk to a professional, such as a counsellor.
- If you have children, you may need help with talking to them. Specialist nurses can support you with this, such as Macmillan nurses.
- Let your partner take as much responsibility as they can for their care, family issues, finances and other decisions.
- Ask for support and accept help from family members and friends.
- Try to keep to routines. This can help life feel more normal.
You may find your relationship changes because of the cancer. This may not happen straight away, but it can happen over time. Illness can add a lot of pressure to a relationship. It changes your lives and your plans.
Lots of couples feel more stressed than usual when one person has cancer. You may be coping with:
- difficult feelings
- changes in your roles
- making decisions
- deciding what to tell other people, including any children
- changes in your sex life
- worries about money or work.
Your partner might seem different. This could be because they are very stressed, in pain or tired. You might find you argue more because of the emotions you are both feeling.
You may feel closer and that you love each other more. But not all relationships become stronger. Cancer sometimes causes relationship problems or makes existing problems worse. A cancer diagnosis may show your relationship is not as strong as you thought.
If you have found it hard to talk through problems together in the past, you may find it harder to support each other through cancer. Organisations like Relate can help you with this.
We also have a video about the impact cancer can have on a relationship.
When your partner is diagnosed with cancer, the roles you have in your relationship may change.
During and after treatment, the person with cancer may not have the energy to do things they did before. You may have to do things your partner used to do, for example:
- managing the finances
- working or increasing your hours – especially if your partner was the main earner.
Making changes at work or at home can be tiring, and may mean you have less time for other things, including:
- social activities
- spending time with family.
This can lead to resentment, or you may feel guilty that you are not doing enough. These changes can be hard for you and your partner. It is important to talk to each other about how you feel and what matters to you.
You may feel helpless or unsure about how to comfort your partner. You may also worry about how you will cope with caring for them. These are normal reactions.
Remember, although you have not been diagnosed, you are going through your own experience of cancer. It is okay to ask for help for yourself as well as for your partner.
If you have children
If you have children, you will also be thinking about how the diagnosis may affect them and how to deal with this.
We have information about talking to children about cancer.
Try to be yourself and live as normally as possible. Behaving differently may make your partner feel more aware of the cancer.
It can help to ask your partner what support they would like and find useful. This makes sure you help where it is most wanted and needed. It can also help you avoid misunderstandings.
Let your partner know that you are there to help, but they are still in control. Make a point of asking whether they need you to do something. Let them take as much responsibility as they can for:
- their own care
- family issues
- other decisions.
You will have a lot to cope with. Many couples find it helps to work together as a team. Try to find ways you can help each other, so you both feel cared for.
It may help to write down a list of priorities. Together, you can plan:
- what is most important
- what help you might need
- what support you can get from other people.
Making time for you as a couple
Doing things you both enjoy is a way of staying close as a couple. Many people prioritise the things they think they should do, such as household tasks. Because of this, they may not have the energy to do things they want to do. But doing things you enjoy is just as important. It helps balance out the impact of the cancer.
Make time to do things together that are not about the cancer. You may want to:
- go for a meal
- watch a film
- go for a walk
- take a holiday.
This can remind you what you like about each other and what brought you together as a couple.
Cancer and its treatment may affect sex between you and your partner. But it does not have to mean you stop having sex or being intimate. Many people with cancer still have sexual feelings and enjoy their sex life.
Your sex life can be affected by different things:
- During treatment - if your partner is having treatment, you may both be tired or stressed. You might be focused on getting through the treatment. This can mean sex and being intimate feel less important. But for some people, sex becomes more important.
- Lack of desire - changes in your partner or in your relationship can affect their or your desire for sex. Some people find it difficult to be a carer for their partner and still think about them sexually.
- Physical changes - your partner may have physical effects of cancer or its treatment. For example, if your partner has had surgery or is in pain, you may worry about hurting them during sex.
- Emotional changes - you or your partner may have emotional changes, such as depression or anxiety. You may feel guilty for wanting to have sex when your partner is not well.
- Fears and worries - fears about cancer might put you off having sex. But cancer cannot be passed to another person through sex. And having sex will not affect how well a cancer treatment works.
Some cancer treatments may directly affect the ability to have sex or orgasms. This can happen if a treatment affects the sex organs or their nerves and blood vessels. It can also happen if your partner has a treatment that affects the balance of sex hormones in their body.
Treatments that may have this effect include:
- hormonal therapy
- radiotherapy or surgery to the area between the hips (pelvis).
What can help?
There are different things you and your partner could do to help with your sex life:
- Talk to your partner - tell them what you would like and ask them to tell you what they would like. This can help you feel closer. Ask your partner if there is anything they are worried about, or do not want to do.
- Talk to professionals - if cancer treatment has caused sexual difficulties for your partner, encourage them to tell their doctor or specialist nurse. They may be able to suggest or prescribe things that can help. Sex therapists can also help individuals or couples who have sexual difficulties.
- Make time for yourself and your partner - spending time together doing things you both enjoy can make your relationship stronger. It can also encourage intimacy.
- Try different ways of being physical - if touch is important to you, use it to show how you feel about each other. Holding each other close or using massage are ways of physically showing your love. If there are things your partner cannot do or no longer enjoys, you may want to experiment sexually. You may find new ways to give and receive sexual pleasure.
- Help your partner feel more confident - they may feel self-conscious about how they look. Talking with them about this, and about how you feel about the way they look, may help them feel more confident. Encourage them to focus on the parts of their body they like. Having sex while partly dressed or keeping the lighting low may help.
There are organisations that can help couples who are having problems with their sex life. The College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists have a list of professional therapists on their website.
It is important to remember that no one is to blame. Although it can be difficult to talk about at first, most people find it helpful to get some advice and support.
If you or your partner identify as LGBT+
When your partner has cancer, you may worry about lots of things. If you or your partner identify as LGBT+, you may have extra concerns.
The cancer may make your relationship public for the first time. This may be when you and your partner go to hospital appointments, or when you are talking to their healthcare team.
You might be worried that professionals will assume you are a same-sex couple or will not recognise you as a couple. It can be hard to know how to deal with this.
If you are a same-sex couple, it might help for your partner to tell their doctor or specialist nurse about their sexuality. This may make it easier for you to go to appointments with them. You may both feel more supported if other people know about your relationship.
If your partner is trans, the cancer might bring up issues about a gender they do not identify as. This can be very difficult for your partner and you to cope with. Talking to their doctor or specialist nurse about this can help.
When someone has cancer, it affects everyone close to them. Your partner’s family will also be coping with different emotions. If there are already relationship problems, feelings of anxiety, anger and sadness can make them worse. There may be disagreements about who should be the main support or carer for the person with cancer. Or you may find the cancer brings you all closer together.
If you or your partner are not getting the support you need, it is important to remember that the law protects you. You should not be treated any differently because of how you identify.
Sometimes talking about these issues can help you cope:
- Organisations like the LGBT Foundation and Stonewall can offer support.
- You can call us on 0808 808 00 00. Our cancer support specialists are experts in supporting anyone who is affected by cancer.
- You could talk to people in the group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people on our Online Community.
The person with cancer may want to talk to you about their treatment options. Their doctor may have spoken to them about different options.
Talking to them about these choices can help you understand their thoughts and feelings. But any decisions about treatment are theirs.
Having information may make you or the person with cancer feel more in control. It is important to remember that your information needs might be different from theirs. Some people may want to:
- know as much as possible about the cancer and treatment
- only want to know enough to make decisions about treatment and how to cope with it
- choose not to know very much at all.
It can be useful to talk about how you can manage this. It is best to let the person with cancer find out information when they are ready.
The best source of information about cancer treatment for the person with cancer is their healthcare team. You can also get information:
- from the Macmillan website
- by going to a local Macmillan information and support centre
- from other reliable cancer information websites.
Many hospitals have information centres. These provide face-to-face information and free booklets and leaflets.
If you disagree with a treatment decision
Sometimes you may not agree with the person about treatment decisions. This can be hard for both of you. If this happens, you may find it useful to talk to the doctor or specialist nurse together. This may help both of you to understand all the options.
The person with cancer has the right to make their own choices. Try to accept this and support their decision. Sometimes this can be hard. It may help to talk about your feelings with someone else. Your GP or the person with cancer’s specialist nurse may be able to arrange for you to see a counsellor.