Cancer and Relationships: Navigating Changes in Intimacy, Communication, and Support

Cancer is a devastating disease affecting not only a person’s physical health, but also impacting their emotional and mental well-being. Making matters more complicated, when someone has cancer, relationships with their loved ones (most especially with their romantic companion) may change.

Understanding how cancer affects relationships can help patients and their loved ones develop coping mechanisms and handle possible emotional challenges.


Relationships After a Cancer Diagnosis

Both patients and their loved ones face diverse and demanding situations while coping with cancer. Cancer treatments can pose severe physical and mental challenges on patients, making it difficult to carry out day-to-day activities due to pain, exhaustion, nausea, and other side effects. Following a consistent treatment schedule, as well as seeking mental health support for cancer, can help alleviate feelings of anxiety, despair, and loneliness.

For the family members, friends, and significant others of cancer patients, the challenges can be just as daunting. Being safe on the sidelines while someone they love is fighting for their life can cause feelings of helplessness and frustration. Caregiving can also be a vexing obligation, whether it involves managing medicinal drugs, offering emotional support, or assisting with everyday activities.


Changes in Intimacy and Sexuality

The changes that come with cancer and some treatments, including fatigue, pain, nausea, and other side effects of conventional care, can make engaging in sexual activities difficult or even impossible. Furthermore, cancer treatments can impact intimacy and relationships due to the hormonal changes resulting from cancer treatments, which can affect an individual’s sexual drive and capability for arousal.

Romantic partners may also struggle to adapt to these changes, as they may feel like they are dropping an essential aspect of their relationship. However, it’s essential to understand that intimacy is not always synonymous with intercourse. Engaging in activities such as hugging, holding hands, and giving massages can help couples connect physically and emotionally. Most of all, communicating openly about their wishes and feelings can help maintain their bond and emotional intimacy.


Communication Strategies for Navigating Difficult Conversations

Effective communication is necessary to maintain a healthy relationship throughout cancer treatment and beyond. Here are a few verbal exchange strategies that could help couples express themselves and limit the possibility of hurting each others’ feelings:

  • For cancer patients, use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For example, say, “I would appreciate you driving me to my next doctor’s appointment,” instead of “You should drive me to my next appointment.”
  • For loved ones, listen actively. Pay close attention to their words, ask clarifying questions, and reflect on what you’ve heard.
  • For both parties, be sincere and upfront, even though conveying your desires and emotions may feel uncomfortable.
  • When emotions are high, pause or take breaks as needed. Ensure to express this need carefully. For example, a patient can say, “I need to rest. Can we talk later?” Meanwhile, a loved one can try to de-escalate the situation by saying something like, “Let’s discuss this again later. Do you want something to eat? I can go out and get it for you.”
  • Seek psychosocial support from a therapist or counselor who works with cancer patients and their loved ones.

By enforcing these communication techniques, couples can navigate difficult conversations and minimize unwanted emotional outbursts or arguments.


Coping With Caregiving Roles

Providing support and caregiving roles can also impact relationships. A spouse who was previously the breadwinner, for instance, may now need to take time off work to care for their partner. Another example is a distant family member needing to make frequent trips to offer assistance. These changes can be stressful and overwhelming for loved ones.


Tips for Maintaining Relationships During Cancer Treatment

Despite the above challenges, maintaining a healthy relationship during cancer treatment is possible. The following tips can help patients and members of their social circle stay connected and support each other throughout this difficult time:

  • Make time for each other. Take a walk, watch a movie, or talk about life. What matters is making an effort to bond and stay connected.
  • Practice self-care. Regarding mental health, self-care can help manage stress, improve body image, and increase energy levels for both patients and their loved ones. For cancer patients, consider these Simple Self-Care Tips to Boost Your Confidence as a guide.
  • Explore new approaches to being intimate. If your sexual relationship is on pause, you can still be intimate through loving affection and touch. Try dimming the lights and playing some romantic music. Give your partner a massage or hold each other close, focusing on the sensual, not sexual.
  • Work as a team. The closeness resulting from teamwork during cancer treatment may help a patient feel more secure and in control. Communicating and practicing the above tips to maintain intimacy, your relationship can thrive in the face of cancer.

In addition, talking to a counselor who specializes in working with cancer patients and their loved ones, joining a support group, or connecting with others facing similar experiences can provide a safe space for sharing feelings and receiving practical advice.


Stories of Couples Who Navigated Cancer Together

Helping someone cope with cancer is one of the most difficult challenges for romantic partners and loved ones. However, a lucky few have found ways to strengthen each other’s bond. Todd and Becky Beggs are a leading example. Married for over 27 years, for six years of their marriage, they fought and powered through Becky’s stage-four metastatic breast cancer.

Much like a wedding vow, the couple made it their goal to be there for each other. They did not let their marriage crumble, ensuring to do things they loved, like taking vacations and trying new things together. Their advice to other couples is to continue doing as many of the activities they enjoyed pre-cancer diagnosis and explore new adventures.

“When you get married, you say for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” said Todd.


Don’t Let Cancer Burn Bridges

Battling cancer can be hard on relationships, but it should not destroy them. Friends, family, and significant others can stay connected by understanding how cancer affects the mind and body, communicating openly, and seeking guidance from others. With love and determination, cancer patients and their social circles can navigate the complex situations associated with malignant diseases and emerge more united than before.


Reading Materials for Cancer Patients and Their Loved Ones

If you or a person you love is going through cancer, New Hope Medical Center recommends the following resources:

You can also contact us to know more about alternative cancer treatment options and schedule a consultation.



“What Is Cancer?” National Cancer Institute. Accessed March 12, 2023. 

Studios, Joseph. “Unexpected Challenges Faced by Cancer Patients.” Aynjil, September 6, 2021. 

“Home – Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.” WSMH. Accessed March 18, 2023. 

Magazine, Coping. “Cancer and Relationships – Tips on Managing Them – Coping.” Coping with Cancer, October 17, 2022. 

“Love Lessons: Navigating Cancer Together.” Moffitt Cancer Center. Accessed March 12, 2023.

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