A diagnosis of ovarian cancer can be really stressful and may put a strain on your relationships. This information and advice can help you manage relationships with family, friends and partners and to help you cope if you have children.
Relationships with family, friends and partners
Feeling supported and connected to people around you can be very important after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Telling your partner, family and friends that you have cancer can be hard. There's no right or wrong way to tell someone and it’s important to do what’s right for you.
Other people’s reactions
The people closest to you may not know how to react. If they aren’t being as sensitive as you’d like, it may be because they're feeling overwhelmed, frightened, helpless or angry. Some people have no experience of cancer or serious illness and may not know what to say or do.
Your diagnosis may make others aware of their own vulnerability or bring back bad memories. These feelings can sometimes cause other people to withdraw from you, which can feel hard. Some friends won't be able to offer you support but others will.
Some people use denial to protect themselves from worry and fear. This can be frustrating, particularly in someone you are close to, as it prevents you from talking about what’s on your mind. You could say that you find their way of dealing with it understandable, but difficult, and encourage them to talk. It can help to let them know that you would find it very useful to be able to share how you’re both feeling.
Your family and friends may want to talk about your diagnosis and treatment all the time. If you need a break let your friends or family know. It’s okay to say what subjects are off limits for the day and what you would like to talk about instead.
You might find that family and friends encourage you to be positive all the time and ‘fight’ your cancer. This approach, although helpful for some people at times, is hard to maintain and there will be days when you just don’t have the energy to be positive. This is understandable and it’s okay to say so. Be clear with others about the language you like to use. For example, “I don’t really like to say I’m fighting cancer, I like to say I’m doing what I can day by day”.
Try to think about:
Who is good to talk to about how you’re feeling
How your family and friends can help you in practical terms
Who may be happy to cook the odd meal, run errands or help with the everyday tasks
Your relationship with your partner
How your diagnosis affects your relationship will depend on your personalities, your life experiences and expectations. For some, relationships are strengthened but for others a cancer diagnosis can test a relationship to its limits.
Your diagnosis is likely to impact on your day-to-day lives, including the roles you both take in your relationship and wider families. It takes time to adjust to this and can help to talk openly with each other about these changes. Cancer may also change your future plans together. How you imagined your lives and relationship to be may be very different. For many couples this often includes fertility and any plans you had to start a family. For others it's the impact of illness on children you already have. It can help to talk about your fears and what impact cancer and treatment has on both of you.
Starting a new relationship
You may not be in a relationship when you're diagnosed with ovarian cancer. You may worry about how to start a new relationship, particularly if your treatment means you won't be able to have children. A question frequently asked is "when do I tell my new partner that I have had cancer?" There's no right or wrong answer. It's likely that you will know when the time is right. Building a relationship on trust and honesty will strengthen it.
Despite the difficulties, many young women have reported positive changes in their lives since their diagnosis, including in their relationships, their sense of spirituality and their general appreciation of life.
Coping if you have children
With the rush and stress of your treatment it's not always possible to sit down with your children straight away to explain what's going on. But it's important to explain what is happening as soon as you can.
Talking to younger children about your diagnosis
Children are very sensitive to change and often suspect that a parent is ill long before they're told. Young children will be very aware that their parent(s) are worried and that something important is happening. Sometimes children will express this by behaving like a much younger child.
It’s important to let them know what's happening as clearly and simply as you can and give them the opportunity to express how they feel. You can explain about your diagnosis in a way that's comfortable for you and clear to them. Children often have questions, but they may not have them at the time you have these conversations. Let them know they can talk to you or your partner (if you have one) anytime if they have any questions or worries.
By talking to your children you give them permission to talk to you, your partner or a family member about their fears. It might also help to:
Tell children together – if you have more than one child, telling them together can keep secrets and misinformation to a minimum.
Tell them what they need to know – firstly, that you're ill and secondly the correct name of the disease. Finally some detail about what the treatment is. When you are being treated explain to them what's happening and any obvious changes like hair loss or fatigue.
Keep it simple – dealing with your children's emotions on top of your own worry and exhaustion can be hard but being open with children can avoid the additional stress of trying to keep a secret.
Talk about what will happen next – explain that it's made you feel sad but the doctors have said that you'll be treated. You'll feel unwell for a while but the medicine will help.
Avoid making promises – it's important not to promise children that you will get better if you aren’t sure this is the case. Be clear on what’s happening at each stage of treatment.
Be open and honest – tell them you will always try your best to answer their questions. You know your children best and will know the best way to talk to them.
Talking to teenagers and older children about your diagnosis
Teenagers and older children may find your diagnosis particularly difficult to deal with. Some may be very supportive and helpful while others may struggle due to being in denial or not knowing what to say.
They may find it hard to open up about how they're feeling or appear uncaring and dismissive of your illness. They may spend a lot of time watching TV or doing activities where they zone out. This is their way of protecting themselves because they do care. Older children may also be angry towards you or others. Anger is often related to underlying worries. It can often also be that older children don't want to upset you by sharing their true feelings.
What can I do?
Keep talking to them about what's happening. The chances are that they're very concerned but just don't know how to express it.
Let their school know what’s happening so that they understand and can help to support them. If they have exams or coursework their school might also be able to make allowances. Teenagers can be sensitive and they might want your diagnosis to stay private. Before telling their teacher be sure to discuss it with them.
Try to give them a feeling of security. Keeping them updated with what’s happening and any changes in routine can be a great help.
Talking to older children about genetic risk may be appropriate.
How will my children react?
Their reaction will depend on their age and previous experience of illness. They may experience:
Anger – many children, of all ages, react with anger. This may be at you, a teacher or their friends. It's very common and can be hard to deal with without getting angry yourself.
Regression – you may find that young children go backwards in their development. This is a normal response. For example, they may start wetting the bed, become clingier, go back to using a dummy or start playing up at school or getting into trouble. This should resolve with time and reassurance.
Physical symptoms – children might complain of a headache, tummy ache, dizziness, sleeping problems and a loss of appetite.
What can I do?
Let your children know that you understand why they feel upset and allow them to express themselves. It might help them to channel their anger, for example through exercise or art.
If you're in hospital you can prepare your child by letting them know what they might see when they visit. For example, if they're young it may help to learn by play through a doctor's set or by tying headscarves onto dolls and bandaging teddies. Showing them pictures of treatment equipment or describing them may also help.
Some people like to have a toy or object that both you and your child have while you are in hospital to help you still feel connected.
If your child doesn't want to or can't visit the hospital when you’re having treatment, you can arrange times to talk on the phone, video call and send pictures and messages.
Ask your clinical nurse specialist (CNS) about counselling options for children.
More information and support
Macmillan Cancer Support has excellent guides on talking to children about cancer
Fruit Fly Collective also have a group of toolkits for young people who are affected by a parent being diagnosed with cancer
Riprap is a free resource for teenagers with a parent with cancer
Last reviewed: January 2022
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