How Cancer Affects Your Relationships

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on June 16, 2022

Cancer can affect many areas of your life. Your relationships with partners, other family members, and friends and colleagues may change as a result of your diagnosis, at least for a time.

You might be the person who always lends a hand to others, but now you’re the one who needs help. Or you might need different types of support than you did before. Many people in your life will be there for you. But cancer can be a source of stress for you and for those around you, and some of your relationships may struggle. Here are some ways you can keep them strong.

Don’t Go It Alone

You may feel like no one knows what you’re going through. And that may be true to some extent. But it’s still important to let friends and family support you emotionally during this tough time. They’ll want to help, too. Let them, but be specific about what you need, whether it’s meals, transportation, or a shoulder to cry on.

You don’t have to tell everyone you have cancer, and you don’t have to share everything about your diagnosis with everyone in your circle. But keeping the people you love in the loop can help you feel less anxious and alone. And chances are, they’ll feel less scared if you share information about your treatment and progress with them.

Being Open About How You’re Feeling

A cancer diagnosis will probably bring up new emotions for you. You may want to seem like “the person you always were.” But it’s better to tell the people closest to you if you’re struggling. Being transparent can help them support you, even if that means giving you some space to process your feelings. The more honest you are, the more honest others are likely to be with you. That can help keep your relationships strong during a difficult situation.

Talk Through Family Role Changes

Cancer may change the way you’re able to show up for your family. Talk to them about what you need. For example, if you’re usually the primary caregiver for your children but your spouse needs to fill that role while you’re undergoing chemotherapy, let your kids know that. Try to be as clear as possible about what you’re able to do. Remember that recovery takes time, so don’t beat yourself up if you finish treatment but aren’t able to jump right back into the role you used to play as a partner, spouse, parent, or caregiver.

Have a Response Ready

Even people who love you may say things that seem hurtful or insensitive. They may bring their religion into the conversation, share stories about other people’s cancer that you don’t want to hear, or offer unwanted advice about your treatment plan. But dealing with a cancer diagnosis is already stressful enough. That’s why it’s really important to protect yourself emotionally. Don’t be afraid to tell people, “I can’t talk about that right now” or “that isn’t helpful.” You can even say, “I’m tired of talking about cancer. Can we change the subject?”

Address Intimacy Issues

Cancer treatment may lead to changes in your body. It might change how you feel about your body, too. What’s more, some medications and treatments can affect your sex drive and function. All of those things may impact the way you’re intimate with a partner. The trouble is, this sexual intimacy is often an important way for couples to stay close to each other.

The good news: Cancer doesn’t cause most committed relationships to end. And there’s a lot you can do to stay close. You might:

  • Find other ways to be close, such as kissing, touching, and holding hands. Look for nonphysical ways to be intimate too, such as writing love letters to each other.
  • Ask your doctor or other members of your cancer care team if there are medications or treatments that can help with sexual side effects.
  • Consider seeing a sex therapist or a counselor, with or without your partner.
  • Keep your partner in the loop. Simply explaining how you’re feeling (such as, “I’m having a hard time getting aroused” or “I’m sorry that I’m not in the mood lately. Treatment is really exhausting”) can go a long way to preventing arguments and misunderstanding. That can help you and your partner stay close.

Get Outside Support

It can be helpful to get some space from the people in your life, especially if they seem overly worried about you or want you to “cheer up” or “stay optimistic.” Sometimes, the best support comes from people who aren’t in your inner circle. Consider joining an in-person or online cancer support group. Talking to other people who are going through the same thing you are can make you feel less alone. A social worker, psychologist, or similar professional can also help you sort through your feelings and deal with your diagnosis.

Show Sources


Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “Social Relationships.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center: “Strengthening the relationship through journey.” “Dating and New Relationships: During and After Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Telling Others About Your Cancer.”

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