Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer
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Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer
Concerns for partners
It can be difficult watching someone you love go through treatment for cancer. Try to look after yourself – give yourself some time out and share your worries or concerns with somebody neutral, such as a counsellor or your doctor.
If you have been your partner’s primary carer, it can sometimes be hard to switch between the roles of carer and lover. You may find that changing the setting (e.g. dinner out or a weekend away) can help you both relax and focus on things other than cancer.
Worrying about cancer and the way it may affect your life can interfere with your desire for sex, yet your partner may be craving physical contact. On the other hand, it may seem that your partner has lost interest in sex, and you may feel guilty or uncomfortable for even bringing up the topic for fear of placing pressure or appearing unsupportive. It’s important to never pressure your partner to have sex or go beyond the physical boundaries they feel comfortable with.
Some people are content in a relationship without sex, but there are ways to rekindle this part of the relationship if you are missing it.
For more information, download our ‘Caring for Someone with Cancer’ booklet and listen to our ‘Cancer Affects the Carer Too’ podcast episode.
Ways for a partner to communicate to someone with cancer
Communicate openly – Talking and sharing will be more important than ever. It may help you avoid frustrations that can arise from misunderstandings. If you and your partner have rarely talked about sex, or you find it difficult to discuss your different needs without both becoming defensive, consider asking for help. A counsellor, sex therapist or psychologist can suggest ways to approach tough conversations. They can help you talk about your sexual concerns and how the physical needs in the relationship can be met.
Try other forms of intimacy – If your partner is not ready for sexual contact, then touching, holding, hugging and massaging can help you feel close. It shows that you love and find them physically attractive. Physical contact that doesn’t lead to sex can still be comforting and often helps to take the pressure off both of you. Ask how they like to be touched. Stroking their scars may show your partner that you have accepted the changes to their body. If you are finding the changes hard, try talking sensitively to your partner or to a counsellor.
Acknowledge your feelings – You may have had to face the possibility that your partner could die. As they have recovered, you may expect to feel relieved but instead feel emotionally low and drained of energy. Acknowledge that you both have been through a difficult and confronting experience, and allow yourselves time to adjust.
Look after yourself – Relationships are often challenged through a cancer diagnosis. Take time to look after yourself. Although you don’t have cancer, you have also been affected. Try looking at the changes to the relationship and how you can readjust life around them.
Safety concerns for partners
- Be assured that it is not possible for your partner to give you cancer through intimate activities such as kissing or sex. Ask your health care team for more information.
- Sexual activity will not cause the cancer to spread, nor will it make the cancer come back.
- Chemotherapy drugs may stay in your partner’s body fluids for several days. Their doctor may advise using condoms or other barrier methods if you are having any type of sex after treatment, so as to protect you from any potential risk. The treatment team can give you more details about how long you may need to use protection.
- Some chemotherapy drugs may be passed into body fluids such as saliva. Ask the treatment team whether you need to avoid open mouth kissing and for how long.
- It will usually be safe to have sex after radiation therapy. If your partner is having external radiation therapy, they will not be radioactive by the time they return home. If your partner is having internal radiation therapy, you may need to take some precautions, such as avoiding sexual contact or using condoms or other barrier methods for a certain period of time. Your partner’s treatment team will be able to give you more information.
- If your partner is receiving immunotherapy for bladder cancer (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, or BCG), ask their treatment team what precautions you need to take. You will usually need to use condoms, or other barrier methods, for a week after each treatment.
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This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed August 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Margaret McGrath, Head of Discipline: Occupational Therapy, Sydney School of Health Sciences, The University of Sydney, NSW; Yvette Adams, Consumer; Dr Kimberley Allison, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andreea Ardeleanu, Mental Health Accredited Social Worker, Cancer Counselling Service, Canberra Health Service, ACT; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Kerrie Clover, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Psycho-Oncology Service, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Maree Grier, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Mark Jenkin, Consumer; Bronwyn Jennings, Gynaecology Oncology Clinical Nurse Consultant, Mater Health, QLD; Dr Rosalie Power, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Dr Margaret Redelman OAM, Medical Practitioner and Clinical Psychosexual Therapist, Sydney, NSW; Kerry Santoro, Prostate Cancer Specialist Nurse Consultant, Southern Adelaide Local Health Network, SA; Simone Sheridan, Sexual Health Nurse Consultant, Sexual Health Services – Austin Health, Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre, VIC; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Heath Psychology and Chief Investigator, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Paula Watt, Clinical Psychologist, WOMEN Centre, WA.