Cancer can affect all areas of your life – including your personality. And that in turn can have a big impact on families and loved ones. Here’s a guide for carers whose partners experience difficult mental as well as physical changes after a cancer diagnosis…

by Hilly Janes

Coming to terms with cancer can sometimes provoke extreme reactions. If your partner seems to be behaving in different and unpredictable ways, understanding why can help you to cope with with the effect on you.

“When you are told you have cancer, very often it becomes a life-changing experience for the whole family. There is a lot to come to terms with and the news can be a great shock and throw you into confusion. It is not uncommon to have feelings of anger, irritability, fear, sadness, guilt, feeling alone, loss of confidence and control.” Male Live Better With community member with inoperable cancer

Unfortunately, your partner may give vent to such feelings by lashing out at you, and if they normally the type that keeps emotions bottled up, it can come as a shock. They may be receiving a bewildering battery of advice and reactions from friends and family – well intentioned but potentially irritating. A partner becoming cold and detached in reaction might be a coping mechanism, not a sign of rejection. Cancer can exaggerate personality traits – so if your partner isn’t naturally cheerful and optimistic, they may feel even more down in the dumps.

“He’s become really distant and moody and we’ve just had a very heated discussion ending up with him saying some really hurtful stuff which made me cry …  I just don’t know what to do anymore. Tried to just be normal but nothing about this situation is normal at the moment.” Community member whose husband has prostate cancer

Your partner may feel they are losing control over their body. Losing breasts and hair  and the weight gain caused by treatments can make women feel ugly and angry. Men can feel emasculated by incontinence and erectile dysfunction. You can read the LBW guide to cancer and sex here. Both sexes may have to cope with the disappointment of not being able to have children or be worried about coping financially if they are the main breadwinner.

Keeping a lid on these these psychological and emotional effects won’t help either of you in the long term, so if you find it hard to talk to each other or a trusted friend or family member, it’s a good idea to seek support from a nurse or counsellor who understands the challenges.

“People who in the normal run of things would never have considered themselves in need of emotional support can find it invaluable to be able to talk things through confidentially with someone outside the family,” says Jane Fior, a therapist who has been counselling people with cancer for 20 years, “someone who is impartial, informed about the likely medical trajectory and who understands just what a rollercoaster this can be.”

“I was a doubter and accepted it only reluctantly, but it has helped me to find a way through the fog and confusion.” Community member with inoperable cancer.

Physical causes

Some personality changes may have a physical cause. Cancer treatments are sometime include steroids, which can cause mood swings, irritability and anger – sometimes called “roid rage”.

If your partner has liver cancer, toxins in their bloodstream amy reach their brain and trigger personality changes – you can recognise the signs here.

Hormonal changes triggered by treatment or by cancer itself can also cause changes in mood, because hormones are chemical messengers that regulate brain activity. Tumours in the brain and their treatment can also cause personality changes, because it has such an important role in regulating our behaviour.

Knowing that cancer is terminal and feeling extreme physical pain can create such feelings of despair they your partner may feel suicidal. It’s important not to ignore anyone who says they feel suicidal, even if you don’t believe them.

If you  think your partner may be reacting to cancer or its treatments in any of these ways, both of you should talk to their doctor or specialist nurse.

After treatment

If your partner’s treatment is successful, their reaction may be the opposite of what you expect. Many people who are recovering say they feel worse. The energy needed to keep going drains away, and when all the appointments and attention stop, some patients report feeling abandoned and cut adrift. The fear of a recurrence will never leave them, getting ‘back to normal’ may be impossible and the future hard to imagine.

Where does all this leave you? You may be suffering, but your partner is the one getting the treatment.

“I do think loved ones go through so much when partners and family are diagnosed with cancer, often they are left to fend for themselves in coming to terms with the change in circumstances.” Community member recovering from cancer

Ciaran Devane, former CEO of Macmillan Cancer Care talks movingly in this video  about caring for his wife, who died of cancer only a few years after they married. “As a carer you are trying to hold things together while all these crises are happening,” he says. “It was afterwards I collapsed in a heap in the corner.”

Me time

Making “me time” for yourself is vital, either to do the things you enjoy or to talk to someone who can listen to you talk about how you are feeling (see below).

Make the most of anything that brings a glimmer of joy to you and your partner, however small – seeing friends, going out for a meal, watching a favourite TV programme.

Positive outcomes

Life threatening episodes have a habit of making people think hard about their future and what they want out of it. They may want to make the most of their time left, following dreams that seemed impossible in the past like taking up a new pursuit, travelling, or spending more time with their loved ones. But you may feel your own way of life is threatened if they decide to do something totally unexpected like quit their job or your marriage. In this respect everyone touched by cancer  has one thing in common, it was never part of the plan.

Where to find support

Find cancer support groups in your area with Macmillan Cancer Support.

Yes to Life has information about psychological support for cancer and a list of counsellors by area.

The Haven offers counselling to partners, family members and close friends of those with breast cancer. Always check a counsellor who is registered with a professional organisation like BACP.


 Join the Live Better with Cancer community discussion about personality changes here.