Family life

Cancer and its treatment can affect relationships. Some family relationships suffer, especially if they were already troubled. But many people say that family relationships become stronger and more meaningful. Family can be your safe place, your greatest source of comfort and strength.

Different people have different ideas about who is their family. Family may be your spouse or partner and the people you are related to by blood, such as children, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. For others, family is simply the people in your life who love and support you.

Your relationships and cancer

Cancer can change the relationships in your life. People you know will all react to your cancer and cope with your diagnosis and treatment in their own way. They can struggle with strong feelings, such as fear or even anger or guilt. They too are dealing with change and upset, even though they’re not the person with cancer. Change takes time to adjust to, and it can be stressful.

Understanding that your relationships may change can help you find ways to keep them healthy, strong and supportive for everyone.

Changing roles and responsibilities

Cancer can change the roles and responsibilities in your family. When you have cancer, you may have to give up or cut back on some of the things you’ve always done – for example, you may not be able to drive the kids to lessons, cook all the meals or help elderly parents look after their yard. And when your role changes, the roles of others in your family often change as well. The changes that you all need to adjust to often depend on your stage of life.

  • Your children may be expected to help more around the house or take on jobs that a parent would have done before.
  • You may reverse roles with your adult children who will start taking care of you, the parent.
  • If your parents are in good health and able to help you, cancer may make them more involved in your life than they have been in years.
  • If you are taking care of your elderly parents, someone else may need to help them while you focus on your own health.

Tips to help everyone cope

Sometimes it’s hard for family members to get used to new roles and responsibilities. The way your family copes with all this change and the feelings that go along with it will depend in part on how you’ve coped with hard times in the past. To help you and your family get through this time, try to:

Make the most of your time together. Talk about how much you mean to each other and express your feelings – love, anxiety, sadness or anger. Don’t worry so much about saying the wrong thing. It’s better to share your feelings than to hide them. And it can help others do the same.

Give feedback when family members try to help. Let them know that you appreciate their help, but be honest about what you need and don’t need. No one in your family – not your partner, parent or child – can read your mind.

Keep family members informed about your health. Being informed can help people cope. Answer any questions people have. Respect the right of family members to agree or disagree with your decisions, but make it clear that they are your decisions to make.

Have regular family meetings to talk about the week ahead. Together you can create a schedule that includes your upcoming medical appointments and treatments as well as other family members’ activities that week. You can make lists of tasks that need to be done and agree on who does what. These meetings can be a good way to spend time together while checking on how everyone is coping. During the meeting, talk about anything – good or bad – affecting family life. Out-of-town family members who want to be involved can be on the phone or can join through video or online chat tools.

Expert review and references

  • Lewis FM . The family's "stuck points" in adjusting to cancer. Holland JC, et al (eds.). Psycho-Oncology. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press; 2010: 71: pp. 511-515.
  • Your relationships after cancer treatment. Macmillan Cancer Support. Macmillan Cancer Support. London, UK: Macmillan Cancer Support; 2012.
  • Song L, Northouse L. Family and caregiver issues. Yarbro CH, Wujcki D, Holmes Gobel B (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice . 8th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2016: 73:2045–2062.
  • US National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Living with a Chronic Illness - Dealing with Feelings . 2018:

You and your partner

If you are in a relationship, you may find strength and comfort in knowing that you and your partner are facing the cancer together. But cancer can both strengthen and strain a relationship, and it challenges even the best relationships.

If you are single and have cancer

Getting through a cancer experience can be especially challenging when you are single. When you’re on your own, it isn’t easy to have to deal with the practical concerns of living with cancer. You might need to find someone to help look after you as you recover from surgery or if you are really ill after chemotherapy.

Parenting when you have cancer

Being a parent is challenging. It can be even more challenging when you have cancer. Not only do you have day-to-day family life to get on with, you also have to cope with appointments and treatment or you could be dealing with side effects like fatigue or nausea.

When your adult child has cancer

It can be one of life’s most painful experiences to be the parent of a sick child, even if that child is an adult. The changes that a cancer diagnosis brings to their life may mean that your adult child turns to you more often than they have recently.

Adult children of parents with cancer

Even if you’re grown up, having a parent diagnosed with cancer can be scary. For one thing, it may be the first time that you’ve thought about the fact that one day your parent will die. Depending on your relationship with your parent, you may feel many different emotions.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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