Talking with partners

The emotional support provided by a partner can affect how you cope with the diagnosis. How you communicate with your partner about cancer depends partly on how you’ve always communicated. Many relationships can be challenged by a cancer diagnosis. This may be because of several factors, including an uncertain future, financial worries after the diagnosis, and social isolation.

There may also be role changes for both of you. Your partner may try to protect you by doing everything for you, which can challenge your sense of independence. Or you may not be able to do things you used to do, which can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness. These feelings are common for people diagnosed with advanced cancer.

Some studies suggest that partners experience levels of distress similar to or greater than those of the affected partner, and as a result may feel depressed and anxious.

Ways to talk to your partner

  • Share your feelings about how you’re coping with the diagnosis, and give them the opportunity to do the same. Being open and honest can help you and your partner through any anxieties, sadness and uncertainty, and your relationship may become stronger.
  • At times, you and your partner may not share each other’s feelings, attitudes or opinions, and this can lead to tension. It can help if you still feel involved at home and with the family, even if you can only do small tasks and need to pace yourself.
  • You may find it difficult if your partner doesn’t want to talk about the diagnosis or your treatment options with you. They may unconsciously distance themselves as a way of coping, without meaning to be hurtful.
  • When things are tough, you could try telling your partner what you need most from them. Many people say that their biggest single need is for a sympathetic listener. Remind your partner that the important thing is not what they say – but to be there and to listen. Let them know you appreciate their support and that you understand that it’s tough for them too.
  • Often the partner is the main carer, and will need support with emotional, practical and physical concerns. For more on this, see Information for carers.

    − Kaye

We use the term ‘partner’ to mean husband, wife, de facto, same-sex partner, boyfriend or girlfriend.

Sexual intimacy

We are all sexual beings, and intimacy adds to the quality of our lives. During the initial shock of diagnosis, sex might be the furthest thing from your mind. Physical contact, such as hugging or holding hands, can provide comfort. Over time, you may have questions about your sexual and intimate life after cancer.

There may be times when it is difficult for you and your partner to have the kind of closeness you would like. Depending on where the cancer has spread, or the type of treatment you’re having, you can feel sore and find even a gentle hug uncomfortable. Your partner may avoid contact for fear of hurting you or you may avoid physical contact for fear of rejection.

Ways to establish sexual intimacy

  • Allow time to adapt to physical and emotional changes.
  • Most people find it is easier to re-establish contact by lying close together in bed. If this first step is hard, ask your doctor, nurse or therapist to suggest ways to help make sexual intercourse easier.
  • If sexual intimacy is no longer possible or desired, you may find physical closeness in other ways, such as cuddling, stroking or massage.
  • Talk with your partner about your feelings and concerns about the sexual changes in your relationship, and acknowledge the changes in intimacy.
  • Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of the Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer booklet, or download a digital copy from this page.

Physical and emotional intimacy

Physical and emotional intimacy can provide comfort at difficult times. A sense of closeness can come unexpectedly. A kiss from a child, a hug from a friend, or a caring touch from a nurse could make a difference to your day.

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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