Cancer and relationships

Going through cancer and its treatment can affect the relationships you have with people, including your parents and family, friends and partners. You might find that having cancer makes some of your relationships stronger. You might make new friends, or find new qualities in the relationships you already have.

But having cancer can sometimes have a negative effect on your relationships. This can be for lots of reasons, but things often improve over time. It can help to understand a bit about the issues that can affect relationships, and what can help you cope.

Your family

As a young person, you are probably going through the important, but difficult, stage of becoming more independent from your family. You might argue with your parents or other family members more than when you were younger, and this is normal. It is part of learning how to negotiate and compromise. But it can also make it difficult to talk to people.

When someone in the family has cancer, it can put a strain on everyone. It can cause lots of different emotions, and this can sometimes affect how your family talk and act towards you. They might get angry and upset more often, or argue more than usual.

You are also coping with a lot. Remember that this can affect your behaviour and relationships. Discovering you have cancer changes your life. Your treatment can take you away from home and put you in new and different surroundings. You have to meet lots of new people, like all the hospital staff. And you may be feeling unwell and anxious, which can make it difficult to cope.

It will take time for you and your family to come to terms with the cancer. Talking to each other and spending time together as a family can help.

Parents or carers

Your parents or carers will be really worried about you. They want to protect you and make you well again, but they know that they can’t do that. Feeling out of control can make them frightened.

These feelings might mean they are overprotective towards you. For example, they may tell you not to get too tired, say you shouldn’t go out with your friends, or nag you to eat your dinner. You might find it reassuring that they are looking after you, but it can also be frustrating.

It helps if you and your parents or carers get clear information about what is safe for you to do, and what you should avoid doing. For example, there may be times during chemotherapy treatment when you are at risk of infection. During this time, you should avoid spending time around anyone who is unwell. Your nurses and doctors can give you the information you need, and it is a good idea to talk it through together. Having this information may help your parents feel less anxious.

Your parents may sometimes disagree with each other about what is best for you. This could cause arguments. They may also argue about other things like money or work. Some of these things may have been problems before the cancer. But remember that you are not to blame.

If you or your parents need more support, you might find it helpful to talk to a social worker or counsellor. They are used to these kinds of problems and will be able to help.

Telling your parents or carers what you want

As you get older, it is natural to want to be independent. But when you are ill, you need your family’s help and support. This is especially important when you are just diagnosed or when you feel low during treatment.

You may feel your parents or carers are putting on a brave face and trying to stay cheerful. Sometimes this may help, but it can also mean you worry about telling them how you feel in case you upset them. This is understandable, but the people closest to you would much rather know how you really feel.

Sometimes it can be hard to talk about serious and emotional things when you are sitting face to face, or when people are visiting you in hospital and you know they have to leave soon. It may be easier to talk about important things when you are doing something else as well. For example, when your parent or carer is driving you to a hospital appointment or you are in the kitchen together clearing up. When the focus of attention isn’t just on you, it can be a lot easier to say what you feel.

If you feel overwhelmed by the attention and affection your parents or carers are giving you, explain clearly and calmly what you would like from them. If you want more time to yourself, just say so.

Remember, they aren’t mind readers. And everyone gets things wrong sometimes. So it is important to talk to your parents or carers if you need more support, or if there are things they can do to help.

Brothers and sisters

It is natural for someone who is ill to become the centre of attention, at least for a while. If you have brothers or sisters, they may react in different ways.

They may be supportive and want to be there for you, and you might find that you become closer.

Or they may feel left out because your parents are spending a lot of time visiting you when they would normally be home. They might feel scared about you being ill, or confused by changes to family life.

Because of this, they may not want to visit you in hospital, or they may behave badly at home or school. Try to understand that they aren’t doing it to be unpleasant or mean.

However they react, they are probably worried about you and want you to get better.

If you want to help, let them know that there is support and advice available for them too. If you have problems with your relationship with your brothers or sisters, you can talk to your parents, a social worker, youth support co-ordinator or specialist nurse.


Friendships often become very strong and important when you have cancer. But you might find that it’s not the friends you expect who give the most support. Sometimes friends you were closest to can find it very difficult to deal with your illness.

Your friends might find it hard to support you if:

  • you haven’t been at school or university, or work – they may not know whether to get in touch or what to say
  • they know you have missed out on what is happening and been left out of plans – they may not know what to say, or might worry about upsetting you
  • they are frightened of the idea of cancer – if they don’t know anyone else with cancer or have not have been in a hospital before, it can be hard to understand.

You might also find it hard to keep in touch with your friends. This can be for lots of different reasons, for example you aren’t feeling up to it, or you are worried about what they will say.

But making an effort to keep in touch through texts, phone calls or emails can make a big difference. It can help you feel more confident and supported, and it can help your friends to know you are still the same person.

Making new friends in hospital

You may make new friends in hospital. Being in touch with other young people with cancer can be really comforting. There is so much they will understand without you having to explain it, and you don’t have to worry about looking different or having off-days when you are with them. They know because it happens to them too.

You may also be able to join a young people’s support group. Your nurse will know about groups in your area.

If someone you meet in hospital dies

Some of the friendships you have made in hospital will be very close and last for a long time. But sadly, some of the people you meet may die. This can be hard to cope with.

Grief affects everyone in different ways. You may feel sad, lonely or angry. You may also be scared about whether your own treatment will work. Or you may feel guilty because you are still here and your friend isn’t.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died, whether it’s little stories about them, or talking about their cancer.

Remember there are people who can support you. It can help to talk with someone close to you about how you are feeling. You can also talk to your healthcare team. They can put you in touch with a counsellor if you would like to speak with one. A counsellor is someone who is specially trained to help you cope with difficult feelings. There are also organisations who can help people who are grieving.

Your partner

You may be single, or feel like you aren’t ready for a relationship at the moment.

If you do have a partner, they may be someone you can talk to and a good source of support.

Some people find it difficult to start a new relationship after being diagnosed with cancer, especially with someone they didn’t know before their diagnosis. You may feel unsure about what to tell a new partner about your cancer, if anything at all.

You may also worry about choosing the right time to tell a partner. Some people prefer to tell everyone straight away, while others prefer to wait. There is no right or wrong. It can help to talk it through with someone, such as a family member, friend or a professional.

We have more information about sex and relationships in our section on Sex and relationships  for young people affected by cancer that you might find helpful. In it, we talk more about coping if you are in a relationship, if you are single and if you are starting a new relationship.

Your sex life

Most people have questions about relationships and sex at some point during or after cancer treatment. This is whether you are in a relationship, are single, or if you have had sex or not.

Living with cancer doesn’t have to stop your sex life. Continuing your sex life might help reassure you that, despite your cancer, the rest of your life goes on as normal. During your treatment and recovery, you may not always feel like having sex. But you can still enjoy being close with a partner.

If you have a partner, they may worry that they will hurt you by getting too close. It’s a good idea to try to talk about your feelings and discuss any changes that may be needed in your relationship while you are ill.

You will need to use contraception during treatment, and for some time after treatment ends, to make sure you don’t start a pregnancy.

It is also important to protect yourself and your partner by using contraception from small amounts of drugs that can get into your body fluids. Your doctor may advise that for a few days after treatment you:

  • use a condom (or a latex barrier such as a dental dam) for oral sex
  • use a condom for vaginal or anal sex.

You may not want to be in a sexual relationship while you are going through cancer. It’s important to do what feels right for you.
It might be hard to talk about personal issues such as sex, and you may be embarrassed to talk about it with medical staff. But your doctors and nurses are used to talking about sex, and they should be able to answer your questions with sensitive advice. There should always be a private space available for this type of discussion, and you can ask to talk to a nurse or doctor of the same gender as you if you prefer. Your healthcare team can also give you information about sexual health and services that can help.

We have more information in our section Sex and relationships for young people affected by cancer. It includes more about safe sex during treatment and how cancer could affect your relationships.

Based on content originally produced by Macmillan Cancer Support.