1. How to cope when your partner is diagnosed
Finding out your partner has breast cancer is very difficult and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.
You may have lots of questions about what will happen to your partner and what impact breast cancer will have on your life. Some people are scared their partner might die.
It’s normal to be concerned about the future. It can help to take things a day at a time rather than worrying about things that may never happen.
Some people describe being on an emotional rollercoaster and say their feelings change frequently.
Your feelings may begin to settle as the weeks and months go by. But some people continue to find it difficult to cope with how they’re feeling.
If you’re struggling to cope, you could talk to your GP or your partner’s breast care nurse. You may also find it helpful to call our helpline - please see the top or bottom of this page.
2. Supporting your partner
How to support someone with breast cancer
Knowing how best to support your partner after their diagnosis is not always easy. It can be hard to know what your partner needs, and their needs may not be the same as yours, but there are things you can do to support them.
Communicating with your partner
An important way to support your partner is by communicating effectively with them. You can do this by listening to them and talking with them.
It’s natural to want to try to “fix” things, but it’s not always possible to offer solutions. Simply hearing and acknowledging someone’s worries can be very reassuring.
Listening to your partner
It can be distressing to listen to your partner if they’re feeling very low or want to talk about a difficult topic.
However, actively listening to your partner and allowing them to express their emotions can help them feel heard. It can also help you understand what they’re thinking and feeling.
Useful tips for active listening include:
- Avoiding distractions– sit somewhere quiet and switch off the TV and mobile phones
- Letting your partner know you’re listening– look at them, nod or ask questions and make comments
- Checking you’ve understood what your partner has said– repeat back words they use and try to summarise what you’ve heard. For example: “It sounds like you feel… Have I got that right?” This shows your partner you’re listening and allows them to correct you if you’ve misunderstood
- Avoiding interrupting while your partner is talking– make sure your partner has finished saying everything they want to before you reply
- Encouraging silence – silence can allow time to think about what has been said and how you may want to respond. It may feel awkward at first but try not to rush in if there’s a pause or break in conversation
- Using touch to provide comfort – if it’s appropriate, and you know your partner values physical touch, you could hold their hands or give them a hug
There may be times when don’t feel able to listen sensitively to your partner.
You could suggest a break from listening and arrange to return to the conversation later. This can also give you time to take things in and start again feeling more refreshed.
Talking with your partner
Many people with breast cancer find it helpful to talk about what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. However, some people prefer to cope on their own and don’t want to discuss their emotions or their diagnosis.
Try to gauge how much your partner wants to talk. If they begin to tell you something about their cancer, ask them if they want to talk more about it.
If they do, you could encourage them to talk by asking gentle, open-ended questions. For example, you could say: “What did you feel like when the doctor said…?” or “You said you feel frightened. What is it that frightens you the most?”.
If your partner is feeling angry about their diagnosis, they may sometimes direct this anger at you. This reaction can be hurtful, particularly if you’re trying to support them. But try to remember this is often because they’re upset about having cancer, rather than being upset with you.
You might try to avoid having difficult conversations with your partner to protect them from your worries and fears. However, avoiding conversations may make your partner feel like you’re not interested in how they’re feeling.
Open communication about how you’re both feeling can help you to understand and support each other and bring you closer together. It could also encourage your partner to share their feelings honestly with you.
However, there may be times when one of you doesn’t feel like talking or when you can’t talk openly.
Useful tips for talking
Often, being able to talk comes down to finding the time and space to do so. It might be helpful to set aside a time when you’re able to talk undisturbed, somewhere you both feel at ease.
Some people find it easier to talk when they’re not looking at each other face-to-face. It might help you speak more freely if you talk while doing something else, such as when you’re walking, driving or eating together.
Sometimes you and your partner may prefer to talk about everyday things. Having a “normal” conversation can help you both feel that cancer hasn’t taken over your life.
Communicating in other ways
There are other ways to show your partner you care, such as:
- Physical affection, like a hug or holding hands
- Spending quality time together, and if possible spending time outside of the house and enjoying each other’s company in different surroundings, such as a local coffee shop or park
- Simple thoughtful gestures, such as running a bath or giving inexpensive gifts you know they’ll appreciate
Your partner may find it supportive if you go to appointments with them. Or they may prefer to go to some or all of their appointments on their own.
If your partner does want you to go with them, you may find it helpful to talk beforehand about how involved they want you to be in any discussions and to plan any questions you want to ask.
If you’re working, taking time off to attend appointments may not always be easy. Try to find out how long your partner will be in hospital and how long any treatment sessions and courses last. Then try to come to a suitable arrangement with your employer. Some employers may expect you to use paid or unpaid holiday, while others are more flexible.
If you can’t attend an appointment in person, it might be possible to attend virtually or on the phone. Alternatively, with the permission of your partner’s specialist, your partner might be able to record the consultation so you can listen to it together afterwards. You may also be able to speak to your partner’s breast care nurse, with their consent.
Supporting your partner with treatment decisions
Your partner may be given choices about their treatment, and they might ask you for advice and support in making these decisions. Talking about the options with your partner can help you to understand their thoughts and clarify any questions they may have for their healthcare team.
It’s important to be guided by your partner about how much information they want about treatment options. It’s also helpful to acknowledge that your partner’s questions may be different to yours and that any treatment decisions are theirs to make.
Supporting your partner to gain the information to make an informed choice can help them feel more in control. It can be difficult if your partner makes decisions you don’t agree with, but it’s important to consider their feelings and respect their choices.
Many people with breast cancer want to carry on doing as much as possible during their treatment. However, side effects can make it more difficult to continue with everyday tasks, and asking for help is not always easy.
Offering to do more practical tasks can be a very useful way of supporting your partner. This could include:
- Administration, such as sending emails or paying bills
- Childcare responsibilities
It might be best to ask your partner what they would like you to do, so they can continue to do the things they want to do themselves. This will help them feel in control.
3. How to manage changes to your relationship
Caring for someone with secondary (metastatic) breast cancer
When your partner is diagnosed with breast cancer it will often change your relationship with them.
Some couples become closer and their relationship gets stronger.
But if your partner was previously independent and becomes emotionally or practically dependent on you, this can put a strain on your relationship.
A cancer diagnosis and treatment might mean you and your partner adopt different roles in the relationship compared to before. This can be difficult to cope with.
Your partner’s perspective may change, and you both might focus on new priorities and re-evaluate what’s important.
Counselling can be very helpful, and discussing your feelings with someone impartial can help you both to see things more clearly. Organisations like Relate offer relationship counselling. Many hospitals also have counselling services, some specialising in cancer, and there may be services in your local community too.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer affects LGBTQ+ relationships in many of the same ways as heterosexual relationships. However, you may have different concerns if you or your partner identify as LGBTQ+.
Your partner’s healthcare team will be better able to support you both as a couple if they are aware of your sexuality. It can help to talk to your partner about any concerns either of you may have about this.
You can find further support and information at LGBT Foundation, Stonewall and OUTpatients.
Sex and intimacy
Being diagnosed with breast cancer will almost certainly affect how your partner feels about sex and intimacy.
They might experience a lack of confidence and altered body image due to the side effects of treatment.
Changes to your partner’s body during and after treatment may also affect how you feel about them sexually. Getting used to looking at these changes together may help make being intimate easier in the long term. Sometimes, the longer you leave this the harder it can be.
You may both be too tired to even think about sex. Or you may want to have sex but both be nervous about how it will feel.
Although it’s important not to make any demands on your partner, it’s equally important you don’t ignore your own feelings.
If you’re frightened of hurting your partner during sex, let them know how you feel. It can be difficult to talk about sex, but articulating and listening to each other’s concerns can help avoid misunderstandings.
You may be able to discuss and explore other ways to have sex or be intimate that are comfortable and satisfying for you both. Given time, the way you approach sex together can bring you closer.
If you’re having problems, you and your partner might find it helpful to talk to the breast care nurse or GP. You might also find it useful to contact a specialist organisation like Relate or the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT), or to discuss your feelings with a counsellor, either together or separately.
Read more about how breast cancer treatment can affect sex and intimacy.
Some breast cancer treatments can affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant in the future. This may have a significant impact on your plans as a couple and might affect how you view your relationship in the long term.
If having children is important to you and your partner, fertility preservation can usually be offered before starting treatment. You and your partner can ask the specialist or breast care nurse about the different choices available and ask for a referral to a fertility specialist.
If you have children
If you have children, whatever their age, you may worry about how they will react to your partner’s diagnosis.
Very young children may not understand at all, teenagers may not know how to deal with the situation, and adults may feel they should be old enough to cope but find it hard.
It’s usually best if you and your partner decide together how and what to tell your children. Children are very good at picking up on other people’s emotions and can often tell if something isn’t right. If they think you’re keeping a secret from them, they may feel left out and think they’ve done something wrong.
Although every family is different and there are no set rules about talking to children, being open and honest with them helps them to trust you.
If your children live at home, your role in caring for them may change while your partner is having and recovering from treatment. Your children are likely to notice if your partner is less able to care for them, whether one of you has always taken most of the responsibility for looking after them or you have shared it equally.
The extra attention your children need may leave you feeling overwhelmed. Your partner may see a shift in their relationship with the children and may feel rejected, helpless or even jealous at times.
Making any decisions concerning your children together will help your partner feel involved and ease some of the pressure on you.
Find out more about talking with children.
4. Getting support for yourself
Although your partner is the one with a breast cancer diagnosis, the experience will be difficult for you too.
You may feel frustrated that you cannot help your partner as you would with other problems.
It’s normal to feel a range of emotions, so it's important you find support for your own physical and mental wellbeing.
Looking after yourself
To be there for your partner, you need to look after yourself.
Make sure you eat properly, get some regular exercise and try to get enough sleep.
It’s also important you have some time for yourself. This could be going for a walk, having a drink with a friend or spending part of your day writing your thoughts in a diary. Allow yourself this time without feeling guilty.
If you’re finding it difficult to do these things or are feeling overwhelmed, let a friend, family member or your GP know.
Coping at work
Some people continue to work after a diagnosis of breast cancer and only take time off to attend appointments and undergo treatment. Others find it difficult to cope with work.
Partners of people with breast cancer can also find it difficult to continue working or to work the same hours as before.
You or your partner may need to stop working or reduce your hours at work. This may put pressure on your finances and change the dynamics of your relationship.
If your partner is being treated for breast cancer and you’re struggling to continue working, you could consider talking to your employer about measures that might help you manage. You may be able to work flexible hours or take time off to be with your partner.
You could also look at ways to try to ease the pressure of your work. If your employer has an HR department or occupational health adviser, they may be able to offer you support at work.
Talking to other people
It can help to talk to close friends or family about how you’re feeling.
Occasionally you may feel very alone, even if you have friends and family around you. It can seem that no one else really understands what you’re going through.
Having somebody to talk to can help to you feel supported and prevent you becoming overwhelmed. Communicating with people in a similar situation can help. You may find our forum or Someone Like Me service a good place to start.
You can also call our helpline on 0808 800 6000.
There are several places you can turn to for additional support, including: