Relationships with the person you are supporting, family and friends

Listening to the person with cancer

Listening is an important part of communication because it gives the person with cancer an opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling. 

Tips

  • Ask if the other person feels like talking.
  • Focus on the person and listen carefully. Try not to think about something else or plan what you will say next.
  • Ask questions that will get the person with cancer talking.
  • Don’t interrupt or change the subject.
  • Allow the person with cancer to be sad or upset. You don’t have to keep them happy and in good spirits all the time. It can be very helpful for the person with cancer to hear something such as “I can see that you are very upset/sad/worried. This is a really difficult time for you”. Let them know it’s ok to cry or express themselves.
  • Try not to give advice or feel like you have to come up with the ways to fix how they are feeling.
  • Don’t be shocked if they make jokes about cancer: humour and laughter help.
  • If the person stops talking, give them some time to think rather than filling in the gap in the conversation.

“It is okay to show that you are upset too. Don’t hide your feelings or put on a brave face.” - Harry

Effects on your sexual relationship

If it is your partner you’re supporting, you may find cancer and its treatment affects your sexual relationship. However, sex may be one of the things that makes life more normal. Talking openly with your partner about sex can help. Speak to your partner about whether or not they need time and space to recover from treatment.

How it affects your sex life will depend on the type of cancer, the treatment and its side effects.

  • Tiredness can make people lose interest in sex during and after treatment. This is called a lowered libido.
  • Pain, medications and treatment can also reduce sexual feelings and desire. They can also affect someone’s physical ability to have sex.
  • A person’s body may change after treatment, making them feel self-conscious and embarrassed.
  • The stress of caring for someone with cancer may mean you, as a supporter, cannot think about anything else and have lost interest in sex.
  • Many people worry that touching their partner will cause pain.
  • If you provide personal care, such as showering the person or helping them go to the toilet, this can change the way you feel about having sex.
  • There are some ways you may be able to improve your intimate relationship with the person who has cancer. 

Tips

  • Restore the intimacy in your relationship by spending time alone together. If your partner is well enough, you may be able to go to a movie or out to dinner. Otherwise, watch a DVD together, give each other massages, read the newspaper together, look through photo albums or talk about how you first met.
  • Your partner may need to be told that you love them and find them attractive despite the physical changes from cancer or treatment.
  • If you no longer feel sexually attracted to the person with cancer, it may be helpful to talk with a trusted friend or a counsellor about how to handle this.
  • Discuss any fears you have about being intimate with your partner or worries about causing them pain. Many people feel embarrassed talking about their sexual needs, but being open can help you identify changes you need to make.
  • Go to an adult shop together and see what is available.
“When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer, people were very supportive, but as the illness has continued people have gotten used to it and forget I still need help.” - Jill

Many supporters say they find keeping family and friends up to date on the condition of the person with cancer is tiring and takes a lot of time. They also find it stressful dealing with other people’s reactions to the updates. The following tips may help.

Tips

  • Use technology such as group text messages, emails or Facebook to keep others up to date. You may want to start an online diary or blog.
  • Ask a family member or friend to keep others up to date.
  • Leave a voice mail message on your phone to reduce some of the time needed to answer calls. You could say something like, “Bill is doing okay with the chemo. He’s mainly feeling tired. Thanks for your concern.”
  • Leave a note on your door to let visitors know you are resting.

Talking to your children about cancer

Talking about cancer with children or young adults can be hard. How you talk with a young person will depend on their level of understanding. For more information, download a copy of Cancer in the Family and Supporting your Young Adult Children when you have Cancer from the Cancer Society’s website or phone the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) for a copy.

When your support is not wanted

There may be certain tasks that the person you are supporting doesn’t want your help with, such as putting the children to bed or doing the shopping. It may be hard to step back and let the person with cancer do things for themselves, especially if you can see they are having trouble.

If the person refuses your offers of help, you should respect this. If you are worried about the person with cancer’s safety, you could place a bell nearby so they can ring you if they need to. You may say that you can come back regularly. You can also talk to your doctor or nurse to get some help in the home.

The person with cancer may do something that you do not agree with, such as refusing medications or wound care. If this happens, try talking to them about why they are feeling this way. Another family member or close friend may also be able to help. If this doesn’t work, you should find support and advice from the healthcare professional. They may be able to discuss it more openly with the person with cancer. 

“Mum’s been grumpy and difficult all her life and I realise that now she has cancer it won’t change. Even though she doesn’t want my help as her supporter, it won’t mean that I’ll stop caring about her.” - Billy

If it doesn’t work out

You might try to support the person with cancer but find it hard to cope with. Sometimes the changes in your relationship make it hard for you to give support. Don’t feel bad about this. It might help to get counselling, either alone or with the person with cancer. The counsellor can talk to you about ways to cope. Ask your GP or call the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) for information on how to get a referral to a counsellor.