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Sex and cancer for partners

Find out about how to support your partner if they have cancer. You may also be wondering how to deal with any changes in your sex life.

Talking to and supporting your partner

You can do a lot to help your partner come to terms with the effect their cancer and treatment has on them.

The most important way you can help is by being prepared to listen. It's also important to talk openly and honestly to your partner. They need to know you still love them and find them attractive, and that you're prepared to give them the time and space to recover.

Physical changes

It will help your partner if you're able to face obvious changes, such as scars. You might also need time to get used to this sort of change. New scars tend to be more visible at first. With time, they will settle down and become less obvious.

If your partner has had her breast removed (mastectomy), she will almost certainly worry that you find her less attractive, and might worry that you actually find the scar ugly and that it puts you off. Or if your partner has had surgery for prostate cancer and is having problems with having an erection, he's likely to worry about how this will affect your sex life.

It can be very healing for a partner to touch or stroke a scar as it shows that you have accepted these body changes.

Sexuality

It might be helpful (or necessary) to put intercourse on hold for a while and focus on showing each other affection. Kissing and touching can be very comforting and relaxing, as long as you're both clear about how far you're expecting to go.

Many people are afraid of causing their partner pain, even by touching them. Worries like this can get in the way of a relationship. Talking with each other will help. Ask your partner to guide you either by words or actions and be prepared to go at their pace. If your partner feels rather shy at taking the lead, some gentle encouragement might help.

Contraception to avoid pregnancy

It’s important to use reliable contraception during treatment if you or your partner could become pregnant. If you are having treatment with anti cancer drugs such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy you should use contraception during treatment and for a period of time afterwards because the drugs may harm the baby. The exact time depends on the drug. Ask the doctor, nurse or pharmacist about this.

You should also avoid pregnancy during radiotherapy as it might harm the baby. Talk to your partner's specialist about different types of reliable contraception.

If your partner is female and has had breast cancer, your doctor might advise her not to take the contraceptive pill. This is because the hormones in it might affect the cancer.

Unknown risk of cancer drugs

It is not known for sure whether cancer drugs, such as chemotherapy and targeted drugs, can be passed on through semen or secretions from the vagina. Because of this some doctors advise people to use a barrier method (such as condoms, femidoms or dental dams) if you have sex during their treatment. This applies to vaginal, anal or oral sex.

Generally, doctors advise a barrier method only for the time a person is actually having the treatment and for about a week after treatment.

Advice like this can be worrying, but this does not mean that you have to avoid being intimate with your partner. You can still have close contact and continue to enjoy sex.

Radiotherapy

If your partner is having external radiotherapy treatment it's fine to have intercourse if you both want to.

Prostate cancer 

If your partner has had internal radiotherapy for prostate cancer (brachytherapy) they should use condoms during intercourse for the first month after treatment. This applies to vaginal, anal or oral sex. Very rarely a radiotherapy seed in the prostate gland gets misplaced and might be found in the semen.

Pelvic radiotherapy in women 

Your partner might not feel like having sex for a while during and after pelvic radiotherapy. The skin inside the vagina will be fragile, and might break down. This increases the risk of infection. 

More information and support

If you're at all worried about anything to do with your relationship or your sex life and sexuality, you might want to talk through how you feel with a counsellor or therapist.

You can contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
Last reviewed: 
03 Aug 2018
  • Man cancer sex
    A Katz
    Hygeia Media, 2010

  • Anatomy and physiology in health and illness (9th edition)

    Ross and Wilson  

    Churchill Livingstone, 2011

  • Woman cancer sex 

    A Katz

    Hygeia media 2010

Information and help