How cancer affects family relationships

Oncology Case Management Nurse at Bupa UK
10 March 2017

When cancer happens, it affects the whole family. The shock of the diagnosis and the demands of treatment can put a strain on your closest relationships. Understanding how your family may be affected, and being able to talk to them honestly and openly about what’s going on, will help you cope.

Here we look at how cancer may affect two important family relationships – with your spouse or partner and with your children.

Image of a dad cuddling his young daughter

What changes might happen to my relationship?

It may help your relationship for you to remember that your partner is probably very distressed if you have cancer. Some people find having a partner with cancer as distressing as if they had it themselves. You may each find it difficult to talk about your fears and worries for fear of upsetting the other.

Your roles may change. Your partner may have to take on roles that normally would have been yours – perhaps looking after children, or being the family breadwinner. Although helpful and even necessary, this may be unsettling for both of you.

Some partners may become overly protective, acting more like a parent. You may find this comforting or you may feel that you’re losing your independence.

Cancer and its treatment may affect the way you feel about sex and intimacy. You may not want to have sex, or find it difficult. If your appearance has changed you may feel less sexually attractive. You and your partner may both feel anxious about sex but reluctant to talk about it.

The best way through each of these issues is to talk honestly with each other. Share your feelings, concerns and fears. And if you need more help, consider talking to a counsellor or therapist. They’ll be able to offer help and support with your relationship.

How can I handle talking to my children about cancer?

Being a parent with cancer brings unique challenges. It’s natural to want to protect your children but it’s important to be open with them too. Even young children will sense that something is wrong.

What information you give your child and how you give it will depend partly upon how old they are. You can get lots of advice on talking to children about cancer from organisations like Cancer Research UK and Macmillan. Let your child know it’s okay to ask questions and talk about how they feel. Remember, it’s important not to make promises you can’t keep.

Talk to your children about the changes they’ll notice – before they happen if you can. This might include changes in your appearance, and changes to their daily routine. Children tend to be happier when they know what to expect. And reassure them that they’ll always have someone to care for them.

Be prepared for changes in your child’s behaviour. Young children may become clingy and not want to leave the house or go to school. Older children may respond to their fears by becoming distant and withdrawing from family activities. Let their school know what the family is going through so that they can offer support if necessary.

It can be emotionally and physically exhausting being a parent and coping with cancer at the same time. Try to accept practical help from others so that you can spend more of your time enjoying your children.

What happens after cancer?

After your cancer treatment you’ll probably be looking forward to life returning to normal. But be aware that the effects on you and your family may be long-lasting. A counsellor or therapist can help you work through these.

Many families say that their experience has strengthened them and helped them realise how important they are to each other.

You can get support, and advice about talking to a counsellor or therapist from organisations like Cancer Research UK and Macmillan.

If you’d like some advice about what to expect if you’re going back to work, have a look at my blog about returning to work after cancer.

Louise Spence
Oncology Case Management Nurse at Bupa UK

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