How relationships change

Taking on a caring role often changes relationships. For many carers, a cancer diagnosis affects the established roles they have with their partner, parent, friend, dependent or adult child or sibling, and this can be a challenging adjustment.

The effect of cancer on your relationship will vary, and the impact often depends on what your relationship was like before the cancer diagnosis. Some carers find the opportunity to care for someone strengthens the relationship with the person they are  looking after. For others, particularly those who had a strained relationship before the diagnosis, the pressure of a cancer diagnosis and treatment and the demands of caring add further tension. You may find it best to share the caring role with other people so you are not the full-time carer.

Understanding potential changes can help. See the illustration below for ways a relationship may change, and how to manage these changes.

How will cancer change our relationship

Ways to manage changes in your relationship

Support for LGBTI carers

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people may face specific challenges when caring for their partner. They may worry about the family of their partner accepting them, or wonder if support services are LGBTI-friendly. Ask the Carers Association in your state or territory what support is available for LGBTI carers in your local area.

Changes in sexuality and intimacy

If you are caring for a partner, you may find the cancer and its treatment affects your sexual relationship. The effects on your sexuality and initimacy 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 your libido and can 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 preoccupy you and cause you to lose interest in sex.
  • Many people worry that touching their partner intimately will cause pain.

There are ways you may be able to manage sexual side effects and maintain intimacy with your partner who has cancer.

  • Restore the intimacy in your relationship by spending time together. If your partner is well enough, you may be able to go to the cinema or out to dinner. Otherwise, watch a movie at home together, give each other massages, do a crossword 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 their illness or treatment.
  • Discuss any concerns you have about being intimate with your partner. If you keep quiet and withdraw, your partner may misinterpret your distance and think they’re no longer desirable. Being open with your partner about your sexual needs can help you identify changes to make.
  • Keep an open mind about ways to give and receive sexual pleasure. You may need to try different things if your usual ways of lovemaking are now uncomfortable  or not possible. Some people find lubricants or sexual aids help. For a while, you may need to focus on kissing and cuddling.
  • Take things slowly and spend time getting used to being naked together.
  • Be patient. You may find that any awkwardness will improve with time and practice.
  • Talk to a counsellor who specialises in helping couples with intimacy and sexual issues.
  • For more information, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 and ask for a free copy of Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.

If your caring role ends

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 usual activities. This may make you feel a bit lost or not needed any more.

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 is probably not aware of how you are feeling.

You may expect to slip back into your day-to-day life as it was before you took on the caring role, 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.

This information was last reviewed in December 2014
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