The person with cancer may respond to stress in a completely different way to you, and this can be hard to understand.

The person with cancer may respond to stress in a completely different way to you, and this can be hard to understand.

One person may express their emotions more openly than the other (such as crying or talking about their feelings).

A stressful event like cancer may make this more obvious. There is no right or wrong reaction to a cancer diagnosis.

It’s important to be on the same page and to check in with each other regularly. We also now respect that we are a bit different in the way we cope with things.


You may feel some or all of the following emotions. They won’t happen in any particular order:

Feeling stressed

Looking after someone with cancer will be different for everyone. It is likely to bring a lot of stress into your life as you both try to deal with the demands of the treatment and its side effects or other changes. Feeling tired, upset, angry or anxious can add to your stress.

Some symptoms of stress can include:

  • feeling very tired but having difficulty sleeping
  • becoming easily upset
  • feeling anxious all the time or having panic attacks
  • regular headaches
  • body aches and pains
  • high blood pressure
  • an increased heart rate

A lot of stress can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, avoidance and withdrawal.

Refusing to talk or withdrawing is often a response to strong emotions, such as fear and anxiety. This can be not easy to handle.

If the person with cancer refuses or avoids talking about what’s happening, this can cause a lot of frustration for the supporter. If this is a problem, talk to a counsellor, close friend or a member of your family/whānau.

Try to accept that they have their own way of coping, and some people prefer not to talk about their cancer or don’t yet feel ready to do so.

If someone coped with life’s challenges in this way before the cancer came along, they’d likely cope in the same way.

If the person with cancer is not a 'talker', it can help to express themselves through other means, such as writing, art or music. 


  • exercise regularly
  • eat healthy food
  • do something you find relaxing such as reading or listening to music or gardening
  • ask others for help
  • try to get enough rest and sleep
  • don’t use alcohol for comfort
  • try to do some of your normal activities
  • planning regular enjoyable activities can help you to feel like you still have some control at a time when so much is out of your control, and it gives you something to look forward to
  • have a friend or family member who can be the main contact for information
  • use voicemail, email or Facebook to let people know what’s happening
  • keep in touch with friends
  • find out what services you are entitled to (for example, home help, meals or volunteer driving)
  • keeping a diary helps with expressing how you’re feeling

Financial impacts of cancer - benefits and entitlements 

Feeling alone or lonely

Being a partner or supporter can be extremely lonely at times. Even if others offer help, you may still feel as though nobody else truly understands what you are going through.


  • talk to someone who’s been through this situation
  • join a support group
  • access or find online support
  • talk with a friend
  • accept offers of help from friends and family/whānau
  • go to a local place of worship or talk to your religious or spiritual supporter

You can contact your local Cancer Society who will tell you about support groups in your area and other resources for connecting with others. 

How we can help you

Feeling frightened and anxious

Watching someone go through cancer and its treatment can be frightening. You may be fearful that the person with cancer won’t get better or that you won’t cope with the situation.

The person with cancer may have their own fears, which may make it difficult to talk to them and share experiences.


  • learn as much about cancer and this diagnosis as feels right for you 
  • if you don’t understand any of the information you have been given, talk to the treatment team
  • talk to a counsellor that can help you to talk through your feelings and think about practical ways to manage your fear and anxiety

Cancer Society psychology and counselling

Feeling sad and depressed.

It’s common to feel down or sad at times when you are caring for someone with cancer.

You may feel sad about what the person has to cope with or what they have had to give up. If you are partners, you may feel sad about not enjoying things together as you used to.

For some people, the sadness may not go away. You may begin to feel down nearly all of the time and not be able to pull yourself out of it. If this is the case, you may have depression.

Other symptoms of depression can include:

  • changes in your appetite or weight
  • sleeping problems
  • feelings of hopelessness

Depression is very different from sadness. Depression is an illness that may need treatment. There is a very effective treatment for depression, and the earlier you seek advice, the better.

If you think you might be depressed, talk to your doctor.


  • try to do something you enjoy every day
  • get up as soon as you wake up rather than lying in bed
  • text, email or meet with a friend
  • try to do some exercise, even a 30-minute walk every day will make you feel better
  • make an appointment with your doctor and discuss how you feel

Feeling guilty

Many supporters say they feel guilty. You may feel guilty about:

  • not being available as much as you’d like because of your other commitments
  • not being able to do enough for the person with cancer
  • knowing you are well and the person you are caring for is ill


  • try not to think things such as ‘I should’ or ‘I must’, be kind to yourself and accept you can’t do everything

Feeling frustrated

Your frustration may be related to many things like:

  • lack of time to do your own thing
  • not being able to change the situation for the person with cancer
  • waiting for appointments or test results

Although it’s a very normal feeling, frustration can make you feel anxious, upset or even angry at times.


  • take regular breaks and time for yourself
  • do something physical that you are able, for example, even a short walk will make you feel better

Coping with waiting

Feeling anger

There may be times when you feel angry about what you have to do or how the person with cancer treats you.

You may feel that they don’t appreciate everything you are doing or only think about themselves.


  • in the heat of the moment, take a deep breath and walk away from the situation for a few minutes
  • try to work out what is causing your anger
  • try to rest when you can, eat well and do some exercise each day
  • tiredness or hunger can make you angry more easily
  • don’t hold your anger in or pressure yourself to be positive and calm all the time, as this can sometimes lead to an explosion of strong emotion
  • remember you are human, and feeling angry is part of that, but you can choose how you react to this feeling
  • ask yourself whether you need to let it go or take action to tackle a problem
  • there are many positive ways to help you deal with anger, such as listening to music (with earphones if necessary), going for a walk or run, writing your feelings down or talking to a friend or relative.
  • avoid using alcohol and other drugs to relieve anger

If anger has become a problem, talk to your doctor or another health professional.

Feeling resentful

It is very normal for partners or supporters to, sometimes, feel resentful. This may be towards the person you are supporting.

You may feel that other family/whānau members, friends or medical staff could be doing more to help. Loving someone doesn’t always protect you from resentment.

If your relationship with the person you are caring for was ‘rocky’ or had ended before they became ill, you may resent supporting them.


  • don’t let resentment build up; it will make you feel worse and affect your ability to support the person you care about
  • talk to a counsellor if things become too hard, and you find that you feel resentful all the time
  • consider other options for care for the person with cancer (for example, a rest home); Sometimes, you have to make a decision that is right for you.

Cancer Society psychology and counselling

Feeling helpless

There may be times when you feel that there is nothing you can do to help.

You can’t take away the cancer or the pain. Many people say this makes them feel helpless or out of control. This can be especially hard for people who have always felt in control of life.

Some people say they feel helpless as they have no medical background and feel overwhelmed when the person with cancer says things aren’t going well.


  • keep a list of all the numbers of who to call when there’s a problem, such as your doctor, community cancer nurse, the hospital or hospice, or your social worker
  • talk to a health professional working with the person with cancer (for example, when their pain is worse, or they are feeling sick or very down)
  • feel reassured that the person you’re supporting is glad you’re there

Feelings of loss and grief

Many changes and losses occur with cancer. You may feel that you have lost part of your relationship with the person you are caring for. You may be missing work, people, regular exercise or an active social life. Certain family/whānau and friends may be staying away because they are not sure how to deal with illness. You may be dealing with an uncertain future and financial changes.


  • be kind to yourself as it can take time to adjust to the changes and challenges
  • take time out to stay in touch with people
  • talk to a counsellor

Talking about loss and grief

Being over-protective

Sometimes, partners or family/whānau members do more for the person with cancer than that person wants. They may stop the person with cancer from expressing any negative thoughts for fear of burdening them. While it may be done with good intentions, it can often make the person with cancer feel powerless and unable to talk about how they feel.

Often, people with cancer will not express bad thoughts to protect their supporters if they think they are stressed or fragile. This is another reason why taking really good care of yourself will help the person you’re supporting.


  • check with the person about what they want to do for themselves and how you can help
  • encourage them to be as independent as they can and to live as normally as possible
  • there will be good and bad days for both of you, and that’s okay
  • talk to a counsellor if you’re worried about this
Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have health professionals to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: January 9, 2023