Caring for Someone with Cancer
How relationships can change
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. This 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 cancer diagnosis. You may find caring for someone strengthens your relationship with them.
For others, particularly those who had a strained relationship before the diagnosis, the pressure of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, financial worries and the demands of caring add further tension. In this case, you may find it best to share the caring role with other people so you are not the full-time carer.
It can be helpful to understand the changes that cancer can bring. Being open and honest can help you and the person you are caring for cope with any anxieties, sadness and uncertainty. This section discusses some ways a relationship may change, and how to manage any changes.
There are many carers under the age of 25 in Australia. When young adults take on a caring role for their parents, the role reversals can be difficult for both sides. Young carers may also be trying to keep up with their studies and social life with friends. The Carers Associations in each state and territory offer information and support tailored for young carers. Visit Young Carers Network to find out more.
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 becoming defensive, consider seeing a social worker, counsellor or psychologist. They can suggest ways to approach these conversations.
- 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.
Changes in sexuality and intimacy
If you are caring for a partner, you may find your sexual relationship is affected. The changes will differ depending on the type of cancer, the treatment and its side effects.
Having cancer can affect physical intimacy in different ways:
- Tiredness can make people lose interest in sexual activities 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.
How to manage sexual changes
- Talk openly with your partner about how you’re feeling – communication is an important sexual tool. Sharing your concerns will help you explore new ways to be intimate.
- Being open about your sexual needs can 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. Physical contact that doesn’t lead to sexual activity can still be comforting.
- Spend time together doing other things you both enjoy. This way sex isn’t the only way that you show your affection and intimacy.
- 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. Looking at and touching these areas may help both of you get more comfortable with the changes.
- Keep an open mind about ways to give and receive sexual pleasure, especially if your usual sexual activities are now uncomfortable or not possible. Try different lubricants or sexual aids.
- 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. An
occupational therapist on the treatment team can suggest practical strategies for positioning and fatigue management.
Although all carers have the same rights, regardless of sexuality or gender, LGBTQI+ carers may face specific challenges. They may worry about health professionals or the person’s family or friends accepting them, or wonder if support services are LGBTQI+ friendly. Talk to your GP about local services that can help. You can also contact Qlife, a national counselling and referral service for LGBTQI people. Visit at Qlife or call them on 1800 184 527.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed November 2023 by the following expert content 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.