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Ways to Not Let Breast Cancer Affect Your Relationship

Medically reviewed by Catherine Hannan, MD on October 23, 2017Written by Ann Pietrangelo on October 23, 2017
breast cancer and relationships

No matter the stage, breast cancer can have a profound effect on your relationship. Even in the best of times, relationships are prone to ups and downs.

There are some things you can do to nurture your relationship — and each other — while living with breast cancer.

See things through your partner’s eyes

Whether you’re the person with breast cancer or the partner, you likely feel overwhelmed.

First, you think about the present — what you need to do here and now. Then, you need to figure out how you’ll manage treatment, finances, work, and day-to-day matters.

Lastly, whether you’re dealing with early-stage or metastatic breast cancer, you think about the future and what will happen.

A cancer diagnosis frequently interferes with how people function as a couple. In addition to the physical aspects of cancer, the roles within the relationship change.

As someone living with breast cancer, you likely have many concerns about your health. You may also be anxious about the impact it has on your family.

Partners share those same worries. But they also want to be strong for you. Being the caregiver of a loved one is challenging, and partners tend to put their own needs on hold. With most of their attention going to the person with cancer, it’s easy for caregivers to feel overwhelmed.

In a tricky, trying situation like this, there might be feelings of rejection on both sides. To clear up confusion and any mixed signals, first, think about how you would feel if the roles were reversed.

Talk about breast cancer…

“Me time” matters. You’re allowed some time to think about what’s happening. Then, you have to talk about it. Not addressing the life-changing details of cancer can lead to assumption and misinterpretation.

It can take time to accept what’s happening. It’s OK to express fear, sadness, frustration, and even anger about cancer. By talking about it, you can identify your individual and shared hopes and anxieties. Then, you can develop coping strategies and make decisions that will help keep your relationship strong.

…and talk about other things, too

Sometimes it’s hard to think of anything else, but it can be helpful to talk about things other than cancer. You probably have a wide variety of interests. Talk about movies, books, or the latest song by your favorite band.

And let’s not forget that communication comes in many forms. It could be the touch of a hand or that special look you share from across the room. The love note under the pillow or the heart on the bathroom mirror. Those private jokes nobody else gets. Little gestures mean a lot.

The important thing is that you stay connected.

Be a time creator

Breast cancer treatments can take up a lot of your time. They also contribute to physical and emotional fatigue.

It may sound strange, especially if you’ve been together a long time, but it’s worth setting aside time to be together. Your calendar is likely filled with doctor appointments, errands, and other duties. You should set aside some couple time, as well. It can be 15 minutes for quiet cuddling, 30 minutes to talk over tea, or a few hours to watch a movie.

Don’t lose each other to your “to do” list.

Be intimate

Breast cancer changes your appearance. It takes time to adjust to mastectomy and its after-effects, or the loss of your hair to chemotherapy. Fatigue and other side effects can curb your enthusiasm for physical intimacy.

Depending on your treatment, you might also be dealing with sudden menopause, vaginal dryness, and lowered sex drive.

For some couples, there’s little interruption in intimate relations. However, it’s not unusual for cancer survivors to have sexual problems. For women with breast cancer, the strength of their relationship is a strong predictor of sexual functioning. (This is another reason why it’s so important to work on your relationship.)

Intimacy can mean a lot of things, though. It might be that you only feel comfortable cuddling — there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone is different, so take it at your own pace.

Some women worry that the loss or alteration of their breasts will harm their relationship. However, studies show that intimate partners aren’t concerned about that if it means having you alive and well.

Get support

Breast cancer can put a strain on a relationship. If you’re stressed out and disconnected, maybe it’s time to reach out for help. Here are a few places to start:

  • Talk to your doctor about physical symptoms that are contributing to relationship problems. Individual symptoms can often be treated.
  • Ask friends and family to help with household chores and errands, so you have more together time.
  • Seize the day when you’re feeling good. Go on an impromptu date or mini getaway together.
  • Speak with an oncology social worker about sex and intimacy issues.
  • Ask your doctor or treatment center to refer you to a therapist or clinical psychologist experienced in couples counseling.
  • If your partner is not interested in counseling, consider going by yourself. Encourage your partner to join you when ready.
  • Reach out to breast cancer support groups or caregiver support groups. Networking with others who “get it” can make a difference.
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