Some common questions about sex and cancer


Can I catch cancer from my partner?

No, you cannot catch cancer from having sex with your partner.

Could sex make my cancer spread to other parts of my body?

No, sex will not cause cancer to spread to other parts of your body.

Are there any good positions for having sex during and after cancer treatment?

This will depend a lot on which part of your body is affected by cancer. If it’s in your pelvis (genital area) it may take some gentle and patient experimenting to discover which positions now suit you both. This can also be true after a mastectomy (removal of the breast); some people say they don’t want their partner’s weight resting on them. In some situations, for example where penetrative sex is painful, you may want to find other ways to have sex or be affectionate. Maybe having sex side by side or swapping who is on top will be more comfortable. Most couples find that with clear communication they can find out what suits them best.

Are there times when I should not have sex?

Avoid unprotected intercourse or oral sex for 48 hours after chemotherapy. This allows time for the chemotherapy drugs to be cleared from semen and vaginal fluids. Protection in the form of condoms, gloves or good hand-washing and/or dental dams is recommended if you do have sex. 

Pregnancy should be avoided during cancer treatment, as the treatment is potentially harmful to a developing baby. If you think you may be pregnant while you are having treatment, please discuss this with your doctor.

Women who have had pelvic surgery shouldn’t have vaginal or anal intercourse for six weeks after surgery. When you have sex again will depend on the sort of operation you’ve had, how quickly you heal and how you’re feeling. You will be the best judge of when you are ready. Some types of cancer (of the cervix or bladder, for example) cause bleeding from the vagina or in urine. If this sort of bleeding is made worse by intercourse, stop and tell your doctor this has happened.

For men having low-dose brachytherapy (radioactive seeds) for prostate cancer, sex should be avoided for one month after treatment. After this a condom should be used because there’s a very small risk that a seed will be passed in the ejaculation. After two or three ejaculations (after the seeds have been implanted) there’s no further need to use a condom.

Men who have had high-dose brachytherapy can have sex but may find it’s uncomfortable for the first week or so after treatment. 

If you have low-dose brachytherapy and your partner is pregnant, you shouldn’t share a bed or sit very close to them for the first two months after the treatment. By then the radiation levels will have dropped.

I’m having a bone marrow transplant. How will it affect my sex life?

Bone marrow transplant treatment won’t affect your ability to have sex. If your platelet levels are low you may be at risk of bleeding, so you might be advised to avoid sex until they improve. It’s likely that you will feel very tired after your transplant and this may affect your energy levels and your interest in sex.

Cuddles and kisses are affectionate and sensual ways of showing how much you care for someone, even if you don’t feel like having sex. You can wait until you and your partner feel ready – there’s no right or wrong time.

I seem to have lost interest in sex. What can I do about this?

It’s OK if you don’t want to have sex. There are many reasons why this might be the case. For many people, having cancer changes how they feel about themselves and how they feel about sex. Open communication with your partner is key to navigating these changes.

Cancer treatments can often cause fatigue (tiredness that does not go away with rest) and reduce your desire for sex (your libido). Be flexible about the time of day and night you have sex. Find the time to be together when you feel less tired.

He nui ngā wā e puta ai te rūhā nā te matepukupuku (ko te hiamoe tonu, kāore e pai ake ahakoa tō whakatā) ā, ka whakahekea tō hiahia ki te ai (tō libido). Me ngāwari te whakaaro mō te wā o te pō o te rā ka ai koe. Kimihia he wā kāore kōrua i te hiamoe.

The Cancer Society has an information sheet titled "Cancer-related fatigue" that has ideas for managing fatigue. You can read this information sheet on our website or you can get a copy by phoning your local Cancer Society or the Cancer Information Helpline on 0800 CANCER (226 237)

If you are feeling depressed, anxious or afraid about your cancer, its treatment or your relationship, you are less likely to be interested in sex. People who have had changes in their bodies through illness or surgery often describe a fear of rejection. This is not uncommon. For more information, see Emotions and Cancer.

I’m embarrassed about my scars but still want to have sex - any ideas?

Talk to your partner about how you feel about your scars. Most people find their partners are much less concerned by their scars than they thought, and once you’ve talked about it openly you can feel more relaxed about the changes to your body. You may feel more comfortable if you have the lights turned down low during sex. Some people find it helpful to wear clothing such as a T-shirt during sex if they are bothered by their scars.

“I found having sex with my bra on after a mastectomy made me feel sexier and it kept my prosthesis in place.” – Jennifer
“I was a strong, active person. Now that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer I feel my body has let me down and I’m like a different person.” – Alex

Can having sex cause cancer?

Some cancers of the cervix, vulva, anus, penis and mouth are linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can be passed on through sexual contact. But only a few people who have the virus will develop cancer in later life. Most adults have been exposed to the HPV virus early in their lives.

People who have been diagnosed with HPV-related cancer may be worried about spreading cancer to their sexual partners. Likewise, people who have HPV may worry that they have caused their partner's cancer. 

HPV is spread through skin contact, often during sex. Exactly how a person gets the virus is uncertain, and it’s not always possible to find a sexual cause. 

You don’t need to take special precautions or change the way you have sex if you have cancer that may be related to HPV. 

Some people believe their cancer is punishment for having sex with many partners. Some think it’s a punishment for being unfaithful or for past sexual experiences they’re ashamed of. If you are worried, it can be helpful to talk to a health professional or phone the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).