How relationships change
On this page: Changes in sexuality and intimacy | If your caring role ends | Key points
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 (see asking others for help).
Understanding potential changes can help. See below for ways a relationship may change, and how to manage
How will cancer change
- If I’m doing all the caring
they may feel like they’ve
lost their independence.
- I might need to take on new
responsibilities that will
reverse our roles.
- The intimacy we shared
might be replaced by the
- We might need to re-evaluate
our priorities and set new
Ways to manage changes
in your relationship
- Arrange home help if
you feel uncomfortable
doing the bathing and
- Allow time for both
of you to get used to
the change in roles,
particularly if your roles
- Set boundaries to
and allow both of you
to feel in control.
- Listen to each other’s
needs and find ways
to meet them.
- Use touch to
show you care.
- Talk about the
changes to avoid
- Give the person
you’re caring for the
chance to do things
for themselves so
they feel useful.
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
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
- 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
- For more information see Sexuality, Intimacy and
Cancer or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
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
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
Talking about your feelings with someone you trust can help you
to process the changes and think about what is next.
- Caring for someone with
cancer may put your
relationship under greater
stress. However, some
people say that facing a
cancer diagnosis together
strengthens their relationship.
- If you have a difficult
relationship with the person
you care for, the demands
of caring may add further
- If you or your partner are
gay, lesbian, bisexual,
transgender or intersex
and your relationship is not
recognised, you may face
extra challenges caring for
- Cancer may affect your
sexual relationship. For
example, some treatments
leave people with little or
no interest in sex, or you
may feel too tired to have
sex. You can maintain
intimacy by spending quality
time together, exploring
other ways to be intimate,
discussing your feelings, and
taking things slowly.
- The person with cancer may
not want your help with some
tasks, such as toileting or
showering. You may also be
uncomfortable with these
tasks or you may find it hard
to step back and respect
their privacy. Seek in-home
help if needed.
- At some point, your
assistance may not be
needed as much or at all.
This may make you feel
redundant or hurt. It might be
difficult to resume your life as
it was before. Give yourself
time to adjust to the situation
and to find other activities
that give you pleasure and a
sense of worth.
- Professional counselling can
help you cope with these
Maxine Rosenfield, Counsellor, Private Practice, NSW; Joan Bartlett,
Consumer; Julie Butterfield, Consumer; Julie Hill, Telephone Support Group Coordinator, Cancer Council NSW;
Anna Lovitt, Senior Social Worker – Oncology, W.P. Holman Clinic, TAS; Carolina Simpson, Policy and Development
Officer, Carers NSW; and Helen Tayler, Social Worker/Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community
Health Centre, ACT. We would also like to thank the health professionals and consumers who have worked on
previous editions of this title.