Relationships and advanced cancer

Partners, family and friends can be a source of help and support when you are coping with advanced cancer. But it is common to find it upsetting to talk about your illness with them.

Relationships with people close to you

Partners, family and friends can be an important source of support when you are coping with advanced cancer. But it can be very upsetting or painful to talk about your illness with people you are close to. Your family and friends may not be sure how much you want to talk about your illness and treatment. They may be waiting for you to talk about it, which you might find hard.

When someone has a serious illness, many people are unsure what to say. Some people may try to avoid you, so they do not risk saying the wrong thing. Some people may avoid talking about your illness or may seem insensitive. We have information to help your family and friends talk about your illness and be able to support you.

Your partner

If you have a partner, you may find your relationship is affected by:

There may be times when you do not get on well. Some couples find problems are harder to resolve, because they feel they have less time to deal with them.

Sometimes people avoid talking about how they feel, as they do not want to upset the other person. But talking about what is happening and how you feel can help you both feel less alone. Some people find their relationship becomes stronger if they can be open about the situation and their feelings.

There are different ways couples can help relieve stress, for example:

  • having a short break from each other
  • doing some physical activity
  • talking to someone outside their situation, such as a relative, a friend or a counsellor.

We have more information about cancer and relationships.

Sex life

Sex can still be part of your life if you have advanced cancer. But you may find you and your partner need to adjust to some changes. This may take some time. You may not feel like having sex, or you may be unable to. But there are still intimate and affectionate ways of showing how much you care about each other.

Partners may sometimes worry that having sex could harm you or make the cancer worse. Or they may worry that they could catch the cancer. But neither of these things are true. Try to talk openly with your partner about difficulties or concerns about your sex life. This can help sort out any misunderstandings.

It can be embarrassing to talk about your sex life, but most people find it helpful to get some support. You could talk about it with your GP, specialist nurse or hospital doctors.

There are also some organisations that can help couples who are having problems with their sex life. These include Relate and the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists. Your GP, practice nurse, community nurse, Macmillan nurse or palliative care nurse may also be able to help you find someone.

If you are having sex, it might be important to avoid getting pregnant or fathering a child. This depends on what treatment you are having. If you are thinking about having a baby, ask your specialist doctor or nurse for advice.

We have more information about cancer and sex.

Children and teenagers

If you have children or grandchildren, you may find it hard to know what to say to them. Many hospices have family support services, which offer support to families of people with advanced cancer. Your community nurse, Macmillan nurse or GP may be able to refer your family, including any children, for this service.

We have information about talking to children and teenagers about cancer.

Friends and colleagues

Some friends and colleagues might feel unsure about how to talk to you. They may wait for you to talk about it first before they say anything.

You can tell friends and colleagues as much or as little as you want about your health. You will probably not want to talk about the cancer all the time. You may find it useful for your friends to treat you the same way as usual. It might be helpful to think of a standard answer you can give people, to help move the conversation in a way you would prefer.

Your friends and colleagues will probably find it useful if you can tell them how they can help you. For example, this might include helping with housework or driving you to hospital appointments. Or you may want your friends to help distract you, if your thoughts are focused on the cancer.

If you do not want to talk

There may be times when you do not feel like talking and want to be on your own. This is natural. So if you need time to yourself, do not feel you have to see people.

If you want to have some time alone, you could ask someone else to answer the door or phone for you. If you are in hospital, you may want to limit the number of visitors you have. You can ask a relative or your nurses to help you with this.

If you would still like to get texts or emails from other people, let them know. But explain that you might not always be able to reply.

There is no right or wrong way to face this situation. Each person has to deal with it in their own way.