How relationships change

Caring for someone with cancer may affect your relationship with them. Most carers agree that the relationship is under greater stress during the diagnosis and treatment.

Facing challenges such as cancer together may strengthen some relationships, but others may be strained. The impact on your relationship may depend on what your relationship was like before the cancer diagnosis.

If you have a strained relationship with the person you care for, the pressure of cancer treatment and the demands of caring may add further tension. You may want to share the caring role with other people so you are not the full-time carer.

Caring for your partner

Cancer often changes family roles. If you are caring for your partner, you may have to take on many of their responsibilities.

Discuss with your partner how you feel about the change in your roles and how you will restructure your life during cancer treatment. Try to include your partner in household decisions and ask for their advice. Work together as a team. They will appreciate that they are still an important, contributing member of the family, despite the cancer. Talk to your children about these changes.

You may not want to take away all of your partner’s jobs and responsibilities. Being able to do things may make them feel useful and help maintain their independence, dignity and sense of control.

When you have established your new roles and responsibilities it may be necessary to ask others for help. Discuss the various job allocations with your partner.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex people

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (GLBTI) people may face extra challenges when caring for their partner. They may worry about their family accepting them, or wonder if support services are GLBTI-friendly.

Carers Australia has resources for GLBTI carers.

Effect of cancer on sexuality

You and your partner may find the cancer and its treatment affects your sexual relationship. How it affects your sex life will depend on the type of cancer, the treatment and its side effects.

  • Tiredness can make people lose interest in sex during and after treatment. This is called a lowered libido.
  • Pain, medications and treatment can also reduce sexual feelings and desire. They can also affect someone’s physical ability to have sex.
  • A person’s body image may change after treatment, making them feel self-conscious and embarrassed.
  • The emotional strain of cancer or caring may mean you are preoccupied and lose interest in sex.
  • Many people worry that touching their partner intimately will cause pain.

Ways to improve your intimate relationship

  • Restore the intimacy in your relationship by spending time together. If your partner is well enough, you may be able to go to a movie or out to dinner. Otherwise watch a DVD together, give each other massages, read the newspaper together, look through old photo albums, or talk about how you first met.
  • Tell your partner you care. Your partner may need reassurance that you love them and find them attractive despite the physical changes from cancer or treatment.
  • Discuss any fears you have about being intimate with your partner. If you keep quiet, your partner may misinterpret your distance and think that they’re no longer desirable. Many people feel embarrassed talking about their sexual needs, but being open can help you identify changes you need to make.
  • Keep an open mind about ways to feel sexual pleasure. You may need to try different things if your usual ways of lovemaking are now uncomfortable or not possible. For a while you may need to focus on kissing and cuddling. Some people find lubricants or vibrators help.
  • Take things slowly and spend time getting used to being naked together.
  • Be patient. You will probably find that any sexual problems after cancer improve with time and practice.
  • Talk to a counsellor who helps couples with intimacy and sexual issues.

When your support is not wanted

There may be certain tasks that the person you are caring for does not want you to help with, such as having a bath or shower or going to the toilet.

It may be hard to step back and let the person with cancer do things for themselves, especially if you can see that they are finding the task tiring or painful.

  • If the person refuses your offers of help, you should respect their request.
  • If you have concerns about the person’s safety, place a bell nearby to ring if they need assistance. You may suggest that you will come back every 5-10 minutes and call out to make sure they are okay.
  • You can also talk to your doctor or nurse to get some in-home help.

The person you are caring for may do something that you feel could be harmful, such as refusing medications or wound care. If this happens, try talking with them and discussing their feelings. Another family member or close friend may be also able to be a positive influence. If this doesn’t work, you should seek support and advice from the medical team. They may be able to discuss it more objectively with the person with cancer.

If your caring role is no longer needed

There may come a time when your assistance is not needed as much. It may be because the person you are caring for is getting better and trying to resume their normal life. This may make you feel a bit lost or redundant.

The person you are caring for may gain a new independence and appear to have forgotten how much time and effort you gave. This can be hurtful, but the person with cancer is probably not aware of how you are feeling.

You may think that you can slip back into your day-to-day life as it was before you became a carer, but this can be challenging. You might feel you are still on call for the next setback. Your life may also have changed. Going back to work or resuming other responsibilities you had put on hold can be overwhelming. Do things at your own pace and give yourself some time to adjust. You might be able to return to work part-time or take on fewer responsibilities.

Talking about your feelings with someone you trust can help you to process the changes and think about what is next.

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