Secondary breast cancer and relationships

Having secondary breast cancer may affect your relationships with other people, whether it’s your partner, children or friends.

The following information may help you talk to those closest to you and ask for the help you need.

Partners

If you have a partner, they may experience many of the same emotions as you. They will be worried about you being ill and what it means for your relationship now and in the future.

The fact that you’re ill may lead to changes in your relationship. These changes can bring you closer together but can also sometimes build a barrier between you.

You and your partner may find it difficult to adjust to you needing support and care, or you may worry about becoming dependent or a burden. Your partner may need to continue to work but may feel torn as they want to spend more time with you at home. Help and support is available in many areas for partners/carers. You can ask your specialist team or find information on further support below.

Your partner may wonder how they’ll cope, particularly if you have children. They may be feeling the full weight of responsibility for the family, both now and in the future.

They’re also bound to think about a future when you’re not there, but may feel guilty about planning for this or even imagining it, although such thoughts are perfectly normal.

Talking about your feelings

You and your partner may find it painful to talk about your feelings and fears. This can make communication difficult at a time when talking openly is important. But once you start, talking may be easier than you imagined.

You’ll probably have lots to discuss and you may need to make time and space to talk about practical things, as well as how you both feel.

Even in close relationships some people hide their emotions, perhaps to protect the other person or because they don’t want to appear weak. But don’t be afraid to show how you’re feeling as this can help you cope.

Sex and intimacy

Your sexual relationship may also be affected by your diagnosis and treatment.

For many people, being intimate with a partner can bring comfort. The physical changes and emotional impact of having secondary breast cancer, as well as the effects of treatment can affect how you feel about yourself and your sexual needs may change depending on how well or tired you feel.

For example, if you feel unwell, tired or upset by changes in your appearance, you may not want to be physically close to your partner or your partner may be frightened to touch you because they’re afraid of hurting you.

If you’re not interested in sex but you still want to be physically close, kissing, hugging, cuddling or simply holding each other may be alternatives. Or you may find that massage is a comforting way for you and your partner to give and receive physical pleasure.

By talking to each other about your physical and sexual needs, you and your partner are more likely to be able to deal with any tensions or changes in this area of your relationship.

Many people also find it helpful to talk through the physical changes and emotional impact of secondary breast cancer with their specialist nurse, a member of their specialist team or a counsellor.

Children and grandchildren

If you have children, they may have already seen you go through treatment for primary breast cancer.

How you tell them that the cancer has come back will depend to some extent on how you managed this when you were first diagnosed, and how you and your family deal with intimate or serious issues.

If children are not told what’s happening, they can become scared and confused. They’ll sense that something’s wrong and may notice changes in how you look and behave or overhear conversations between adults. Although you may find it difficult, try to be open with your children so that they feel included. Not addressing it can leave them feeling more anxious.

You may also find our list of resources for families with secondary breast cancer useful.

Young children

How much children can understand about secondary breast cancer will depend partly on their age, so try to explain the situation to them as simply as you can.

Young children are more likely to ask direct, difficult questions such as ‘Are you going to die?’ Try to be as truthful as you can.

Young children and adolescents may also want to talk with another trusted adult.

Grown-up children

Even if they’re adults, your children may still find it hard to take in what you have told them and to respond straight away. They may need time to think about what you have said and what it means for them. Some find it helpful to know they can talk with you, whatever their age.

Grandchildren

With grandchildren, it’s more likely that their parents will tell them about your diagnosis, but they may ask you questions at some stage so it’s a good idea to be prepared. It can be helpful for everyone to agree a similar approach to take with any children in the family.

You may find it useful to read our list of resources for parents with secondary breast cancer.

Family and friends

It can be painful to tell those around you about your diagnosis, when you’re struggling to come to terms with it yourself.

Some people may struggle to cope with your diagnosis. They may be worried about what’s going to happen to you and frightened about you dying. It can also make them think about their own death, which many people prefer not to do. All these things may affect how people relate to you. Alternatively, you may feel overwhelmed by the support and concern from those around you.

Telling people how you feel

Often people may simply not know what to say or how to behave around you. Friends may stop calling you, sound uncomfortable when they do or keep their distance because they think you won’t want company or to hear their news. This can make any isolation you’re already experiencing because of your diagnosis even worse.

You may find that your family and friends need you to raise the issue, though this may feel unfair. If you can tell them how you’re feeling and what you need from them, they can begin to understand how best to support you. If you can share your goals and wishes they may be able to help you make them a reality and enjoy helping you achieve them.

Asking for help

Practical help may be easier to find than emotional support and you may feel you don’t have anyone you can really talk to about the difficult issues you’re facing.

Joining a support group, such as Breast Cancer Care's Living with Secondary Breast Cancer meet-ups, may help you meet people who understand what you’re going through. Some people find sharing experiences online helpful and you may consider Breast Cancer Care’s Discussion Forum or Live Chat sessions specifically for people with secondary breast cancer.

If you prefer, you may be able to talk to somebody in your specialist team, perhaps a Macmillan nurse or palliative care nurse, or you could ask to be referred to a counsellor.

If you’re on your own

Some people may not have as much support as they’d like or need. You may live alone, you may not have close family or your friends may not live nearby.

You don’t have to manage completely on your own. Neighbours, colleagues, friends of friends, members of your church or other social group may be willing to help.

You may find it difficult to ask, but in times of need people are keen to help in whatever way they can. There may be everyday things they can do, like shopping, cooking or driving you to a hospital appointment.

Voluntary services such as the British Red Cross and the Carers Trust also exist in many areas and can provide this type of support.

Your specialist team or GP (local doctor) may also be able to tell you about other sources of practical support that might be available to you.

Last reviewed: December 2015
Next planned review begins 2017

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Please note that we cannot respond to comments. If you have any questions about breast cancer please contact the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

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