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the Reframe teamJan 31, 2023 9:59:38 AM4 min read

Navigating the emotional and physical impact of cancer on personal relationships

Cancer can affect many aspects of life, including your relationship with a partner or spouse, both emotionally and physically. The emotions and physical impacts felt by people will differ, and it’s important to remember that everyone will respond differently to a cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery.  

According to Macmillan Cancer Support, the way that a cancer diagnosis affects your relationship with your partner may depend on:

  • How long you have been together
  • How long you have had cancer
  • How cancer affects your day-to-day life
  • How well you and your partner understand the changes you are going through
  • Whether you live with your partner 

Being aware of some of the potential changes, as well as knowing where to get additional support, can help couples navigate the journey together.

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Coping with new emotions

Cancer not only affects your physical health, but it can also bring up a variety of new emotions about your relationship. It can feel like everything has changed, and you and your partner may experience a variety of emotions. Everything can seem more intense, and feelings can alter almost instantaneously. It is likely that you and your partner will find your own ways of coping with your feelings, perhaps different ways, but supporting each other through this difficult time is crucial.

You may attempt to protect them by not being open and honest about your fears and concerns. However, opening up may make it easier for your partner to be honest about their own feelings too.

According to Maggies, a cancer charity who provides support and information at their centres throughout the UK, a cancer diagnosis can cause stress levels to build up for couples as daily routines are turned completely upside down by appointments, tests and treatments. It is possible that roles may begin to change, and the person who is usually strong may need to rely on others more.

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Possible effects on your sex life

The effect of treatments and the cancer can also affect confidence levels, and tiredness and other side effects may mean that a physical, intimate relationship is less of a priority - particularly for the person with cancer. This can sometimes lead to feelings of rejection and loss of sexual confidence, which can be a test for both parties within the relationship.

Our Cancer Nurse Specialist, Margarida expands on this:

“In men, for instance, cancer treatment may cause a reduction in testosterone which can potentially lead to low desire or erectile dysfunction, tiredness, weight gain, and reduced hair growth amongst other symptoms. For women, cancer treatments can often lead to early menopause and its symptoms, being weight gain, hot flushes, mood swings and vaginal atrophy commonly experienced.”

“There are definitely reasons why cancer can lower the sex drive. Firstly, cancer treatment itself is “no walk in the park” and its physical, mental and emotional impact may “put off” people temporarily. It’s okay if people are not quite in the mood for action, especially straight after they finished cancer treatment. Often this impacts their relationship and open communication with the partner is essential for a good outcome and to embrace different solutions in the future.”


Supporting each other

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or your partner has, supporting each other as best you can through this difficult time will help. Here are some tips on how you can support your partner:

  • It’s good to talk; talk to each other about how you feel, your concerns and what is important to you. If you can’t face it, let your partner know how you feel, so they don’t feel shut out
  • Be aware that you may both have many difficult feelings. Acknowledge that your partner may experience different emotions and have no expectations of what is ‘normal’ during this time
  • Make time for each other; do things you enjoy and talk about things other than cancer
  • Work out how you cope as a couple, for example, you might laugh or cry together to help release tension
  • Ask for support and accept help from family members and friends
  • Try to keep to routines, this can help life feel more normal
  • If you need help with your relationship, you may find it helpful to talk to a professional. Our Specialist Cancer Nurses can provide support to both you and your partner

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How we can help

There can be many different reactions to cancer, and no individual acts in the same way as another. While you may experience some, all or none of the emotions and physical impacts we talk about here, there is no right or wrong way to feel, and you will cope with things in your own way. At Reframe, we recognise how important it is to communicate within your relationships. Still, sometimes it can be beneficial to talk to a professional about your feelings and the physical impact of cancer.

You can get in touch to access support for you or someone you care about, including:

  • Guidance about cancer – we have a team of Registered Nurses with extensive oncology experience who can take the time to attend to your needs or concerns at your pace.
  • Practical support – we can help with absolutely anything that would make life easier, such as chasing appointments, accessing benefits, and speaking to your employer.
  • Emotional support – we're here to provide a safe space when you need someone to talk to about cancer.