The Effects of Cancer on Family Life

A diagnosis of cancer affects not only the patient but also the family, friends, and community of the individual. Cancer and the treatments used to treat it can introduce a complex array of lifestyle changes and emotional responses, which can be difficult for family members to handle.

Partners

It is often the spouse or partner of a patient with cancer that is affected most significantly of all the family members. Both the patient and their spouse may experience strong emotions about the condition, such as sadness, anxiety, or anger, which can affect the relationship.

Each couple will respond in a unique way. Some people may find that the difficulties associated with cancer and cancer treatments increase the bond and strength of their relationship, but many couples report increased strain on relationship and tensions.

In most cases, it is the partner who provides the most direct support to a patient with cancer and is alongside them for day-to-day support. They may help with physical activities throughout the day, or to provide emotional support for the patient. This may also shift the roles that each partner plays in the relationship if there is a need for adjustments to be made to accommodate the health of the cancer patient. This change in expectations and responsibilities can be difficult for both the patient and the partner, who may report feeling, guilty, or overwhelmed.

Cancer can also have an impact on sexuality and the intimacy of couples. Many treatments for cancer may cause side effects such as low libido, vaginal dryness, erectile dysfunction, or depression, which may interfere with intercourse and sexuality. This can contribute to anxiety and tension between the couple, which may be difficult to discuss and work through.

Children

Having a parent that is affected by cancer can be particularly difficult for children, who may not understand everything that is going on and the implications of a condition such as cancer. It is essential to communicate openly with children so that they feel included and understand the basics of what is happening.

There may be significant changes in the behavior of children as a result of cancer. Younger children often become over-attached or impulsive, whereas adolescents may feel angry or become disconnected from social activities. Additionally, there may be some reversal of role as children help in caring for their parent with cancer, which can be difficult for both sides to handle.

Other Family Relationships

Cancer can also have an impact on the family, friends and surrounding community. It is important for people to try to understand the struggles that the patient may be going through and support them in what ways they can.

Each family has a different style of communication and way of coping with difficult situations such as cancer.

Family members may be able to help support the cancer patient in several different ways. For example, they may be able to sit in on medical appointments, ask questions and record the necessary information to refer to later, if needed. It is useful if the same family member is responsible for this throughout the treatment process, as this helps to improve consistency and reduces the need for the same questions to be asked multiple times.

Some families may struggle to stay positive and cohesive during the time of treatment, which can be very uncertain and threatening. It is important for all members to expect some change to the family life and relationships and to try to be understanding of the other members of the family, who are probably facing similar struggles.

Clear communication with other family members is important. Often, friends and other members of the community feel uncomfortable discussing cancer with those experiencing its effects and, as a result, many families can feel closed off. However, it is best for people to be open and honest and talk about the struggles they are facing if they feel it may help.

Additionally, continued involvement in social and other community activities should be encouraged for family members. While it is acceptable to cancel activities when feeling emotionally or physically tired, an outlet outside of the direct family can often help to reduce stress levels.

Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 21, 2017

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