If your partner, family member or friend has cancer

If someone you care about has cancer you may have many different feelings to cope with. How you may be affected will depend on the relationship you have together and whether the person with cancer is your partner, relative or friend.

Dealing with cancer can cause stresses or tensions in a relationship. It’s important to respect that you and the person with cancer may have different reactions and ways of dealing with the situation. Listening and talking honestly together can help you overcome any difficulties. Many people find that supporting someone through cancer strengthens the relationship.

You may want to offer practical as well as emotional support. It’s best to ask the person with cancer what help they need and want. There may be other people who also want to help. If several people are involved, it can be useful to find ways to co-ordinate support.

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 cancer has affected your partner emotionally as well as physically. They might seem different. This could be because they are under a lot of stress or in pain, or simply tired. This can put strain on you and your relationship.

It’s common to have many different feelings when a partner has cancer. You will both probably find your own ways of coping with your feelings. Even if you and your partner have very different ways of dealing with the illness, try to be understanding of each other’s reactions. Try to work together to understand and support each other.

Often partners try to protect each other by not being completely honest about their fears and concerns. But being honest about your feelings may make it easier for your partner to be honest about theirs. Talking about these things may help you understand each other and feel closer.

We have more information about relationship changes, changes in roles and your sex life if your partner has cancer.

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

If you are in a same-sex relationship, or if you or your partner are a minority sexuality or gender, you may have extra emotional and practical concerns when your partner is diagnosed with cancer.

It might be that your relationship becomes public for the first time when you’re in hospital or dealing with healthcare professionals. Or 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. If your partner is transgender, their cancer might bring up issues about a gender they do not identify as.

You may feel the people you meet during treatment don’t recognise you as a couple. Or you or your partner may find it harder to feel comfortable seeking and getting the help you need. It’s important to remember that the law protects you and you shouldn’t be treated any differently because of how you identify.

Sometimes talking about these issues can help you cope or resolve them. You can call us on 0808 808 00 00. Our cancer support specialists are experts in supporting anyone who is affected by cancer. Or you could talk to people in the group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on our online community.

Facing problems

Keep talking to your partner and showing affection. Some couples find that if they face cancer together and support each other emotionally, it makes their relationship stronger.

This won’t be the case for every relationship. The situation you are in might give you an opportunity to look again at your relationship. It may force you to change the situation, even if it means ending the relationship.

Some people will have to deal with the stress of conflicting feelings. For example, if your relationship was close to ending before your partner was diagnosed, you may feel too guilty to end it now. Or you may worry about how that would look to other people.

If the cancer can’t be cured

If your partner’s cancer is not curable, you may be emotionally preparing yourself for their death. This is incredibly difficult, but try not to withdraw from your partner or stop communicating with them. You will need each other now more than ever.

Sometimes, when a person with cancer isn’t going to get better, it can bring up strong feelings about the relationship and make you both re-examine it.

If you have children

If you have children, you may find it hard to know what to tell them. Children don’t always show their feelings, but their behaviour may change at home or at school. 

Teenagers may have to take on more responsibilities around the house – perhaps cooking meals or looking after younger siblings. This can be hard at a time when they’re seeking more freedom and independence. We have more information about talking to children and teenagers.

If a family member has cancer

When someone has cancer, it can affect the whole family. All families are different and each family will respond differently when someone is diagnosed with cancer.

All families have experience of dealing with stresses or tensions, but cancer may test the family in a new way. Everyone in the family may feel anxious, sad and tired. If there are relationship problems already, this can make them worse. But cancer can also bring families closer together as they deal with the challenge.

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. Talking to each other about what’s happening can be an important way to help you all cope.

Changes in roles and responsibilities

During and after treatment, the person with cancer may not have the energy to do things they did before. Other family members may have to take on more responsibilities or adjust to new roles. This can affect people’s social activities and work. It can also affect what the family can do together.

If life is becoming very busy, you can plan as a family what tasks need to take priority. Try to share the tasks out across the family so you can support each other.

It’s important that the person with cancer has a role too. They may want to give support to other family members, as well as being given support. You might find using a communication plan helps to organise your household and prevent confusion.

If your parent has cancer

If your parent has cancer, you may find yourself having to look after them for the first time. You might have mixed feelings about having to care for them in ways you haven’t before, for example if you’re helping them wash or get dressed.

There might be arguments with your brothers, sisters or other family members about who does what or who makes certain decisions. It can help to divide up responsibilities clearly, so each person knows what to do. You could use a communication plan to help you.

If you are a teenager caring for a parent with cancer, you may be classed as a young carer and be entitled to support. We have more information for young people looking after someone with cancer. It talks about other young carers’ experiences.

If your friend has cancer

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

If your friend has family support, you may still have an important role in supporting them. Talk to your friend and find out how you can help. Perhaps you can do practical things, such as going to the clinic with them or spending regular time with them each week. This will give their carer time to do other things.

Maybe your friend needs someone to talk to. Sometimes people find it easier to talk about certain things with a friend than with their family. Or they may welcome the chance to talk about normal things, like what’s been happening at work or what you’ve been doing. Sometimes people worry about saying the wrong thing, so they avoid certain topics. We have advice on how to help you feel more confident about talking with your friend.

In some cases, the person with cancer may not have a family supporting them, but they may have a group of very supportive friends. This can cause similar issues to when lots of family members are involved in someone’s care. Friends may not agree on what needs to be done, and who will do it. It might be best if you all sit down with the person with cancer to talk about it and ask them what they want. This may be a time when you all appreciate the value of friendship and your relationships become stronger and closer.

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 be classed as a carer. This means you could get some support to help you carry out your caring role.

If your friend starts to need more help, you might feel pressured to do 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.

If you’re a friend of someone with cancer, we are here for you. Call us on 0808 808 00 00 for information or support.

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.


Back to When someone close to you has cancer

How you might feel

When someone close to you has cancer, it’s natural to feel lots of strong emotions.