- Cancer affects both of you: Cancer has a physical and emotional toll on the individual that is diagnosed but it is important to recognise that it also impacts their partner in a multitude of ways.
- Communication is key: Talking about how you feel and the changes that have occurred is pivotal in helping you to understand one another and work through any issues together.
- Seek support: Support doesn’t have to end once someone is in remission from cancer, especially as the negative impact of the disease can be long-lasting. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family, or organisations for help, or pursue therapy, be it for you as individuals or as a couple.
The impact of cancer is often discussed when an individual is newly diagnosed or undergoing treatment. There can be less conversation about how cancer affects the spouse, family, and friends of the person diagnosed and more specifically, the effects of cancer on marriage, civil partnership or long-term relationship, especially after remission.
Cancer can take a huge toll on a relationship due to its effects on emotions, finances, physical changes, confidence, and roles and responsibilities, amongst other things. All these changes don’t necessarily vanish once someone goes into remission and it’s normal if you are now navigating marital issues.
Our guide aims to talk about some of the problems that can arise following a cancer diagnosis, during treatment and in life after cancer, and offers guidance on how you can work through these together.
How can cancer impact relationships?
When someone finds out they have cancer, one of the most common initial impacts is how the diagnosis influences their feelings. Coping with cancer is different for everyone and emotional responses can include fear, anger, sadness, and disbelief. This can also be true of their spouse who may not only have concerns for their partner but also for how the diagnosis will affect their own life. Over time, these feelings ebb and flow, as well as develop and change.
However, many other facets of life and your relationship can be affected throughout treatment, and these can cause issues for you both even after treatment ends. Cancer can impact:
- Finances, including income and savings
- Work and career paths
- Physical appearance
- Your relationship with one another and others
- Intimacy and sexual health
- Outlook on life
- Plans for the future
What problems can occur?
Once someone is in remission from cancer, it’s not unusual for existing problems to continue or for new ones to develop as a consequence of what you have both been through. Neither one of you are necessarily at fault here, as these issues are often the result of complex internal thoughts and feelings that aren’t shared and create strain in the relationship.
There are some common problems that many couples experience as a result of one of you having cancer and whilst these may be tough, frustrating and upsetting to deal with, know that you aren’t alone.
Anger and/or resentment
Cancer can cause changes in relationship roles that you have and affect your level of independence. For example, if you are used to doing tasks on your own but now need help, you may feel angry at your situation and unintentionally direct this feeling towards your partner. On the other hand, if you are used to your partner doing lots for you, you may feel resentment towards them if you now have to tackle these tasks for you both.
Other common triggers of anger and resentment include:
- Financial pressure
- Lack of support
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Changes to routine
Intimacy and sexual health
Sex and intimacy can change after a cancer diagnosis. The lasting effects of cancer can include a loss of libido, menopause and pain or difficulty in having intercourse. Breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, and their treatments can also cause body image issues and some people struggle with their confidence and sexuality long after treatment has finished.
Cancer can impact the self-esteem of the person diagnosed in many ways. It can cause changes to their appearance such as hair loss, weight gain or loss and skin texture or colour. Those with breast cancer may also undergo a mastectomy as part of their treatment. These changes can leave them feeling insecure about their bodies. Read more about supporting a partner with breast cancer.
Self-esteem can also be affected by how you feel on the inside and for this reason, cancer can impact both of you. You may not feel like yourselves anymore; for instance, you might feel like your sense of humour has gone or that you have lost talent as you haven’t been able to partake in activities you enjoy or are good at.
When supporting a spouse with cancer, this can change the dynamics of the relationship in many ways. Whilst some of these may revert once in remission, the feelings surrounding these changes may linger.
Common changes to relationship dynamics and roles encompass:
- Losing independence
- Becoming a caregiver
- Task loads, such as chores, cooking, and errands
- Emotional needs
- Socialising and out-of-home activities
- Future plans
Advice and guidance
Everyone deals with cancer and its effects differently, however, if you don’t deal with the impact cancer has had on you both as individuals and your relationship, you can find yourself in an unhappy relationship. If you both want to make positive changes, there are some steps you can try taking.
Honest and open communication
Talking honestly about how you both feel is so important. Failing to acknowledge emotions or pushing them aside can lead to anger and resentment that is often directed toward the other person, which only results in further hurt on both sides.
Not every conversation will be an easy one but by recognising your own thoughts – as well as listening to and respecting those of your partner – you can seek to gain a deeper understanding of the situation and each other. By keeping communication open, you can address issues as they arise and engage in productive discussion, both putting forward ideas for resolution.
Accept things are different now
This can be hard to do but accepting that things are different after cancer can be really beneficial and help you to move past certain sticking points. Fundamentally, cancer changes you in so many ways. It not only has a physical impact, but it can completely change how someone feels about themselves and their life. Rather than trying to take things back to how they were before a diagnosis, you can try embracing the changes and reevaluate your priorities together by creating short-term and longer-term goals.
Continued support after remission
Once someone has received the news they have gone into remission, it’s not unusual to find that the support system they have fades away. This can be hard to deal with, especially if you are both still processing emotions, dealing with fatigue or not able to do everything you used to do.
If you need help, either as individuals or as a couple, don’t be scared to reach out and ask people for support. This could be emotional support, practical support, or even financial assistance. Talk to family and friends, contact charities and other organisations, and even speak to your employer (if you have one).
If you are experiencing marital problems after cancer, seeking professional help could be worthwhile. A trained counsellor can work with you to discuss your issues, reduce conflict, and help you introduce problem-solving practices.
Here at Perci Health, we offer a range of support types such as psychotherapy, psychosexual therapy and hypnotherapy that can help you and your spouse navigate life together after cancer. Find out more about how we can help those supporting someone with cancer.