Cancer and Relationships: 5 Principles to Help Keep Things Positive

UW Carbone Cancer Center oncology social worker offers advice for helping to keep relationships positive in the midst of a cancer diagnosis.

UW Carbone Cancer Center clinical social workers offer insights on how to help maintain positive relationships - both with partners/spouses as well as friends - in the midst of a cancer diagnosis.


Cancer does test the strength and quality of relationships. The experience of cancer is not for the faint hearted – whether it is the person with the cancer or those who love them. You will soon be called upon to make decisions consciously or unconsciously about how it will impact your relationship with one another.


The only certainty about your relationship is change. When cancer comes into our lives it forces us to ride a roller coaster along with love, fear, sacrifice, loss and hope. Cancer will force you to look at yourself and others in a way you never had to do before. Most times you will not have time to gaze at your navel; the thoughts and decisions may often be quick and sometimes messy.


It's like a reality TV show. You know, when the stakes are high, the decisions are tough and the best and worst of you are about to make themselves known to the other. At times the two of you will be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon having to face a seemingly impossible climb together and in another moment you will be at the top of the canyon feeling a sacred bond as you gaze with amazement at the world before you.


5 Key Principles to Help Keep Things Positive


There are some key principles to hold on to as you ride through the storm.


Be Realistic


You are not a super hero nor involved with one although you may both be amazed at the amount of courage that is found.


Be Flexible


Not so easy to do when your life is "on fire." This is the time to redefine relationship and roles because you won’t have a choice, like it or not. The change may be something as "simple" as not being the one to pick up the kids or taking over the role of big brother when you are the youngest. It is okay if you kick and scream into the "new you" although it may behoove you to do it into a pillow or under a bridge.


If you decide nothing is going to change between the two of you there will be frustration and failure. Research shows good relationships are based on the ability to renegotiate the "rules" spoken or unspoken in the relationship. The context of the relationship is ever changing. With time and experience the rules have to change to fit the circumstances. It can be treacherous territory but remember the view can be gorgeous from the top.


Communicate, Communicate, Communicate


To not do so is a disaster waiting to happen. Relationships, it they count, are never easy. If you don't let one another in, the relationship loses power when it needs more energy.


Be Aware of the Beauty of the Person Beside You and Take It In


Remind yourself of it when their behavior doesn't look so pretty. Recognize the strengths of the other and try to be kind about their deficits. Do the same for yourself. Try to remain true to yourself and allow the other to do the same. If you are, the relationship will find its path.


Seek Support


Be smart, ask for assistance whether that be a good talk with a friend or relationship counseling.


Clinical social work services are available to people with cancer diagnoses, their family members, and other support persons. Services include support with the emotional issues of cancer, impact on family, adjustment to the illness and treatment, and assistance with financial, disability, access and vocational issues. Learn more about Clinical Social Work Services.