5 mins. read

How to cope with relationship changes during or after cancer treatment

Practical advice on navigating relationship changes after cancer, by a Perci Health psychologist and psychosexual therapist

An image of a crack in the surface to represent the division which can occur in a relationship during or after cancer treatment

Key takeaways

  • Keep in mind that times of stress can create unexpected issues. Different people have different coping strategies and this can lead to clashes.
  • Find ways to express how you feel to those around you and clearly indicate what you need from them.
  • Talking is key. This is particularly true in an intimate relationship where assumptions can be made. Aim to be solution-focused rather than problem-based in your discussions.

Relationships can be challenging at the best of times and often a cancer diagnosis magnifies issues. Here Perci Health cancer psychologist Dr. Lucy Davidson gives advice about avoiding communication breakdown and ways to move forward if you find yourself experiencing relationship challenges while you’re living with cancer or living beyond cancer. Perci psychosexual therapist Dr. Isabel White discusses the emotional and physical impact of cancer and its treatment, giving guidance to those experiencing changes in a physical relationship.

Dealing with relationship challenges while living with cancer

Perci psychologist, Dr. Lucy Davidson

A diagnosis can lead to you feeling alone and isolated in your situation, or conversely, you may feel that those around you are too involved and you’d rather be left alone.

Avoiding communication breakdown in a relationship that is coping with cancer

Firstly remember a time of stress can create unexpected issues – different people have different coping strategies and this can lead to clashes. For example, you may want to talk about your diagnosis as a way of processing what you are going through, while a friend or family member who you would expect support from may prefer to avoid and ignore the situation. Acknowledge to yourself that they are using a different way of coping which is not aligned with your preferred way of managing the situation. Often it’s this clash of coping strategies, and in turn heated or minimal communication, that can create a feeling of distance between you.

How to move forward if you are experiencing relationship challenges after a diagnosis of cancer

Sometimes we can expect those around us to know exactly what we need, but remember no one is a mind-reader.

  • It’s important to find ways to express and articulate how you feel to those around you and clearly indicate what you need from them.
  • If possible, be specific about your needs while undergoing treatment and thereafter. This could be that you would like to lean more heavily on this person than usual or, alternatively, that you will be getting support in another capacity and they should wait until you ask for their help. Setting clear boundaries will help them better understand and respect your choices.
  • Keep an open dialogue that can be continued in future discussions. 
  • It can be hard to resolve everything in one conversation. If either person feels like the communication is breaking down, suggest returning to the subject after a cooling off period.
  • Agree to have a weekly check-in or a regular walk and talk where it is safe for you both to ask any questions on your mind.

When a relationship changes irreconcilably

You may find that relationships change irreconcilably and this can be devastating on top of a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes people we care about seem unable to support us and this can lead to understandable feelings of abandonment and rejection. Each person brings their own experiences with historical meaning to a situation and it can sometimes mean that they can’t cope with what is happening in a situation. In this sense, it isn’t personal but feels hurtful nonetheless.

When living with and beyond cancer, support may come from the people you least expect and new relationships may develop and grow while others dwindle. Often a cancer diagnosis leads to a re-evaluation of who is important to you and who is there to support you. While this can be painful, it can be beneficial in the long term.

Where to find support

Talking these things through with a professional therapist can be really useful in order to make sense of experiences which you are finding challenging and unexpected. Sessions can help with communication breakdowns, understanding the behaviour of those around you, clarifying your needs and coping with difficult feelings that emerge. It can even be helpful to attend as a couple or with family members, to explore the challenges together and find ways to move forward.

How to address changes in a physical or intimate relationship while undergoing cancer treatment

Perci psychosexual therapist, Dr. Isabel White

The emotional and physical impact of cancer and its treatment can change how we view sexual expression as an individual or with a partner. This applies both to the person with cancer and their intimate or sexual partner(s).

For many, the effects of treatment and difficult emotions reduce sexual interest and expression, while others may find that they want sex more frequently to help them to relax or feel closer to their partner at a time of increased stress or pressure.

How to talk about sex and intimacy while undergoing cancer treatment and beyond

If you want physical closeness with your partner, but do not want or cannot have sexual intercourse at the moment, talking to your partner so you understand what these sexual changes mean to each of you can help to avoid misunderstandings and assumptions that have not been discussed or understood.

Conversation pointers could include:

  • Be solution more than problem focused
  • Start by exploring what you like about your relationship and being sexual together
  • Each take a turn to gently explore worries that might block sexual intimacy
  • Break “being sexual” into smaller steps – agree a beginning where you both feel able to start such as cuddling on the sofa, sharing a bath or shower – whatever feels most comfortable
  • Agree clear boundaries about where to stop and stick to them

Meet our full team of cancer experts at Perci Health or book an appointment with psychologist Dr. Lucy Davidson or psychosexual therapist Dr. Isabel White.

While we have ensured that every article is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to one of our healthcare professionals or your primary healthcare team.