Roles, relationships and sexuality

Cancer or its treatment can change people's roles in the household. During and after treatment many people don't have the energy to do all that they used to do around the home, and family members, neighbours and friends often help with household tasks (see 'Support from family and friends'). 

Several men said they no longer had the strength to perform some of the traditional male roles and this affected how they felt about their masculinity. A married man diagnosed at age 44 who had three children worried about not being able to provide for his family; he confided to a Macmillan nurse. A man in his 60s with emphysema and back pain as well as having had lymphoma felt that his wife shouldn't have had to take over the heavy gardening tasks that he used to do. He also said he felt more vulnerable and less able to defend himself on the street if it were necessary.

Many women felt that changes in their body image through the illness and its treatment had affected their femininity (see 'Hair loss and body image'). One young woman said she felt less attractive after learning her diagnosis but a friend reassured her that nothing about her had changed except the knowledge that she had lymphoma. Wearing a wig and make-up helped a 42-year-old woman who lost her hair to feel more feminine. Some women suspected that their femininity would have been more impaired by breast or cervical cancer than by lymphoma. A woman who had had breast cancer before her lymphoma confirmed this and said that the hair loss and central line in her chest associated with her lymphoma treatment were not a problem for her or her husband.

Having cancer or undergoing treatment can put a strain on relationships. This can be due to the strain of facing the illness and debilitating treatments, but also to loss of self-esteem and unhappiness about body image (See 'Hair loss and body image'). One young woman had been worried that her illness would affect her relationship with her partner but, if anything, it had strengthened as a result of it. Another said she and her husband had probably had more rows but in part this was because she was now more likely to stand up to him. Another woman thought she had probably become a bit more aggressive. A man who had been aged 29 at diagnosis said his personality changed during treatment, ultimately leading to his first marriage breaking up. Some young people we spoke to started a new relationship during or after their treatment and found that frank discussion of the illness and its physical and emotional effects with their partner helped them to accept it and made their relationship strong.

Some drugs used to treat cancer, and the tiredness that treatment often causes, can reduce interest in sex during and after cancer treatment. A man in his sixties said his sex drive had plummeted because of his steroids. Some people said they had been warned about this and accepted it as inevitable while they were feeling ill - several said their sex drive soon returned to normal after treatment. It could be difficult to know how far these changes were due to the illness and how much to natural ageing. A man with other health problems as well as lymphoma said sex was difficult so he and his wife looked to the companionable side of their relationship. 

Most premenopausal women find that their periods stop or become irregular during treatment and they may get menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and vaginal dryness. Health professionals don't always discuss sexual issues and patients may find it difficult to raise them. Specialist nurses can provide support for people experiencing sexual difficulties and suggest solutions to problems, such as vaginal lubricants, which can be bought without prescription. Men who experience prolonged impotence may be offered medication, such as sildenafil (Viagra), to overcome this.

Last reviewed February 2016.

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