Living with and beyond cancer

Relationship with a spouse or partner

While people are being treated for cancer they may be too ill to look after themselves and become dependent on their spouse or partner for help with personal care as well as household tasks. Many people said their spouse or partner had been supportive and looked after them while they were ill. A woman with ovarian cancer said that her husband had gradually taken over more household tasks and eventually accepted the need to get outside help. Some said their relationship had become stronger or they were closer as a result of the illness; Diane says her husband has become more protective of her. Several said that there had been no effect on their relationship, which had continued the same as before the illness.
Having cancer can put a strain on the relationship with a spouse or partner, particularly where the partner has had to assume a caring role as well as coping with the emotional impact of the illness, and some people we spoke to said there had been relationship difficulties. For instance, those who said their partner was struggling to cope with the impact of the illness sometimes said that it made it more difficult for them to cope themselves. A woman living beyond colorectal cancer said that her partner’s way of coping had been to go to the pub every evening during her illness, he moved into the spare bedroom so that ‘she would sleep better’ but he still sleeps there now, which upsets her greatly. Christopher said that he had been so focused on his prostate cancer that he hadn’t paid as much attention to his wife as he should.
A woman whose kidneys had been damaged by ovarian cancer treatment was living apart from her husband so that she could get dialysis on the NHS in the UK and he could remain in paid work in Canada, they spoke on the phone every day.
Some people said that once they had recovered from their illness and were no longer so dependent on their partner, there had been challenges in restoring equality in their relationship. Sometimes people felt their personality had changed after having cancer and this had altered the dynamics within their relationship. Marilyn said that living with chronic leukaemia had made her more confident, which was changing the dynamics of her marriage after 41 years. A man who had recovered from testicular cancer suggested that couples might benefit from counselling to help them renegotiate the terms of their relationship after cancer.
Unfortunately a few people we spoke to said that their long-term relationship had broken down during or after their cancer. This is not unusual after having to share the burden of potentially serious illness; dealing with such a challenge can reveal flaws in a relationship that had not been apparent before the illness.
Some people believed that their own emotional reaction to the illness had contributed to or caused the break-up of their relationship. Alan (Interview 22) had become depressed and irritable during his colorectal cancer, thinking that he would never get well again. He said that this contributed in large part to the downfall of his marriage.
Some relationships broke up during the illness because the person’s partner didn’t feel able to provide the necessary support.
Other relationships remained intact until the person with cancer was well again before breaking up. It was common in these relationships for partners to remain supportive throughout the illness but to leave once the person with cancer had recovered sufficiently to no longer be dependent upon them. Julie’s partner had supported her throughout her leukaemia treatment but their relationship broke up after she came home from a long period in hospital. She explained' “It was just that the leukaemia had held us together for so long, and we were arguing and things and we just felt that it was a time to part”. A man had a physical relationship with a woman throughout his penile cancer treatment but they are now just ‘great friends’.
Six years after being treated for cervical cancer, a woman developed a pain in her uterus which she attributed to a possible recurrence, but it wasn’t. It was at that point that her husband decided he could not cope with the prospect of supporting her through cancer treatment again, so he left. A woman who was living with chronic myeloid leukaemia said that her partner supported her before they got married but then changed his behaviour towards her and tried to stop her doing things she believed were helping her to stay well so she asked him to leave.
Several people said they had felt anxious about the prospect of seeking a new partner, assuming that no-one would want them because of their cancer history and its physical impacts, such as loss of reproductive organs. A woman treated for cervical cancer had continual vaginal bleeding while taking hormone therapy, so couldn’t contemplate starting a new physical relationship during that time; the bleeding has since stopped and she feels ready for a new relationship.
Some people had entered a new relationship since their cancer experience and said that their new partner was understanding and supportive. Judging when to disclose information about the cancer and its effects could be tricky. Some people said they told their new partner about it early on before things got serious in case they were rejected because of it. Steve explained to his friend that he’d had surgery for penile cancer before asking her to marry him; he was relieved that she didn’t ‘knock him back’.

​Last reviewed October 2018.

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