Ovarian Cancer

Impact on others

In addition to dealing with their own feelings about their illness, people with cancer must also cope with the reactions and emotions of those around them. In the past, cancer was taboo, but although nowadays it is talked about much more, it can still be hard to do. 

When women told family, friends or colleagues about their ovarian cancer some wanted to know all the facts while others reacted with shock, anger or fear. Many people don't know that different cancers have very different survival rates, or that treatments are improving all the time - some friends and family found it difficult to face them because they didn't know what to say. One woman's friends in the African and Caribbean community advised her to pray rather than go to the hospital for treatment.

Some people react to the news of a serious illness in a way that does not help the patient. One woman resented being repeatedly told she was lucky her cancer was caught early when she didn't feel lucky to have cancer. Another was frustrated by people saying “you'll be all right” because it didn't acknowledge her fears. People often reacted in surprising ways' some friends who had been close could not deal with the illness while others who had been more distant became unexpectedly supportive. Women said it sometimes seemed more difficult for other people to deal with than it was for those with the illness. Some women tried to avoid talking about their cancer because they really wanted to be treated as normal.

Many women talked about the reactions of their husband or partner. One woman said hers 'went to pieces' probably because his first wife had died of cancer and he was afraid of losing her the same way. Another said her husband could remember nothing of the two weeks following her diagnosis. The husband of a childless woman felt bitter because they had not been advised before her hysterectomy about saving eggs (see 'Fertility').

Partners could feel helpless and frustrated. Some found it difficult to show their feelings or to talk about the illness while others could cry openly or admit their fears. Many couples who talked a lot about it found their relationship became closer. Some partners had difficulty sleeping, lost weight or became depressed, and one woman's husband had a series of strokes and could not look after her. Partners could have a tough time if they were looking after the woman, the housework and children on top of coping with their own emotions and holding down a job, with little or no support. One husband had joked that he had married a nurse so he would be cared for in his old age but now had become the carer instead. A woman whose husband was convinced that she was going to be all right didn't seem to understand why she was scared.

Children react differently depending on their age, personality and relationship with their mother. Some were emotional while others hid their feelings. Some became depressed or took to alcohol or drugs. Some wanted to know all the medical details while others just wanted reassurance that their mother would be all right. Some dealt with it light-heartedly while others talked with their mothers about life and death. Children who had already lost a parent to cancer were particularly devastated. A couple of women said their child had expected the diagnosis to be cancer. One woman said her daughter had expressed concern that she might have caused her illness by giving her a stressful time (see 'Ideas about causes'). Another wondered if her daughter had decided to marry her long-term partner sooner to ensure her mother was alive for the wedding.

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Younger children sometimes became very demanding or had difficulty coping with their schoolwork. Women felt guilty because their children had not received enough attention from them during their illness, and one felt that her daughter's school hadn't given her daughter enough support because she had not told them how ill she was. Friends could be a good source of support for children; one woman's adult children could not seek support outside the family because they had decided to keep the illness secret.

Some children were too young to fully understand what was going on but were unsettled by what was happening to their mother. A nine-year-old wrote a poem. One woman said that her granddaughter had become more distant; another that her granddaughter didn't want her to collect her from school while she was bald (see 'Unwanted effects of chemotherapy').

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Parents, brothers and sisters also reacted in different ways. Women often found it easier to talk to female relatives. Some women's mothers had already had cancer and could talk about it more openly, but parents were often distraught at the thought that their daughter might die before they did. Some were elderly and frail and would no longer be able to depend upon their daughter for help. One woman described how her parents and brothers cried with her when they visited her in hospital.

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Many families worried that other female relatives might be at increased risk of developing cancer through inheriting a faulty gene (see 'Family history and genetics').

Last reviewed June 2016.


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