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Caring for someone with cancer


How relationships can change

Page last updated: January 2024

The information on this webpage was adapted from Caring for Someone with Cancer - A guide for family and friends who provide care and support (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in January 2024.

Expert content reviewers:

This content has been developed by Cancer Council NSW with thanks to the following reviewers:

  • Dr Alison White, Palliative Medicine Specialist, Royal Perth Hospital, WA
  • Tracey Bilson, Consumer
  • Louise Dillon, Consumer
  • Louise Durham, Nurse Practitioner, Palliative Care Outpatients, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD
  • Katrina Elias, Carers Program, South Western Sydney Local Health District, NSW Health, NSW
  • Jessica Elliott, Social Worker, Youth Cancer Services, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, NSW
  • Brendan Myhill, Social Worker and Bereavement Research Officer, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW
  • Penny Neller, Project Coordinator, National Palliative Care Projects, Australian Centre for Health Law Research, Queensland University of Technology, QLD
  • Olivia Palac, Acting Assistant Director, Occupational Therapy, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD
  • Nicole Rampton, Advanced Occupational Therapist, Cancer Services, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD
  • Shirley Roberts, Nurse Consultant, Medical Oncology, Northern Adelaide Cancer Centre, SA
  • Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, Specialist General Practitioner, and UNSW Research Fellow, NSW
  • Kathleen Wilkins, Consumer
  • Helen Zahra, Carers Program, South Western Sydney Local Health District, NSW Health, NSW


Taking on a caring role often changes relationships, which can be challenging and hard to adjust to. The impact of cancer on a relationship often depends on what your relationship was like before the diagnosis.

You may find caring for someone strengthens your relationship with them. For others, the pressure of cancer and treatment, financial worries and the demands of caring can add further tension.

It can be helpful to understand the potential changes that cancer can bring. Being open and honest can help you and the person you are caring for through the anxieties, sadness and uncertainty.

Impact of caring on relationships

Caring for someone with cancer can affect relationships in many ways:

  • you might have to take on new responsibilities that mean you reverse your usual roles
  • the person you are caring for may feel like they have lost their independence or that you are being overprotective
  • you might be worried about talking about your needs when the other person is going through cancer treatment
  • you may avoid sharing your feelings because you don’t want to overwhelm the other person when they have enough to worry about
  • you might need to re-evaluate your priorities and set new goals
  • you might feel lonely if friends and family aren’t as supportive as you would like
  • you may feel too tired to socialise or enjoy your usual activities.

Ways to manage changes

  • Talk about the changes to avoid misunderstandings. Discuss ways to meet each other’s needs.
  • Allow time to get used to the changes, particularly if roles have reversed.
  • Set boundaries to maintain independence and allow both of you to feel in control.
  • Give the person you’re caring for the chance to do things for themselves.
  • If you and the person you’re caring for find it difficult to discuss your different needs without both becoming defensive, consider seeing a social worker, counsellor or psychologist.
  • Contact a local community group or carers’ support group, visit our Online Community, listen to our Family Dynamics and Cancer podcast episode or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

 

Support for LGBTQI+ carers

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans/transgender, intersex, queer and other sexuality, gender, and bodily diverse people may face specific challenges as carers.

You may worry about health professionals or the person’s family or friends accepting you, or wonder if support services are LGBTQI+ friendly.

Talk to your GP about local services that can help. Contact the national counselling and referral service for LGBTQI+ people at QLife for further information and support.

Learn more

Changes in sexuality and intimacy

If you are caring for a partner, you may find  your sexual relationship is affected by the cancer, the treatment and its side effects.

Having cancer can affect physical intimacy in different ways, for example:

  • Tiredness can make people lose interest in sex during and after treatment. This is called a lowered libido.
  • Cancer treatments, medicines and pain can also reduce libido and may affect someone’s physical ability to have sex.
  • A person’s body image may change during and after treatment, making them feel self-conscious and embarrassed.
  • The person with cancer may be feeling sensitive and sore, and may not want to be touched.
  • The emotional strain of cancer or caring may preoccupy you and cause you to lose interest in sex.
  • Many people worry that physical intimacy might be painful.
  • You might find it hard to switch between the roles of carer and lover.
  • You might feel guilty if your partner is unable or unwilling to be sexually active and you still want a sexual relationship.

Ways to manage sexual changes

  • Talk about how you’re feeling – communication is an important sexual tool.
  • Be open about your sexual needs to help you find ways to manage them.  If you keep quiet and withdraw, your partner may misinterpret your actions and think they’re no longer desirable. 
  • Try other forms of intimacy, such as touching, holding, hugging and massaging.
  • Spend time together to maintain intimacy in your relationship.
  • Tell your partner you care. Your partner may need reassurance that you love them and find them attractive despite the changes from their illness.
  • Have your partner show you any body changes before sexual activity. This may allow both of you to get more comfortable with the changes.
  • Keep an open mind about ways to give and receive sexual pleasure. Some people find lubricants or sexual aids help.
  • Take things slowly and spend time getting used to being naked together again.
  • 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. The occupational therapist on your treatment team can suggest practical strategies for positioning and fatigue management.
  • Listen to our 'Sex and Cancer' podcast episode.

 

Caring for Someone with Cancer

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Caring for Someone with Cancer (Plain English)

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