Sex and Men With Cancer -- Overview

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Frequently asked questions about sex and cancer

Can sex cause cancer?

Many patients and their partners worry that cancer is catching. It’s not. And for most cancers, there’s no link between a person’s sex life and cancer risk or having cancer come back after treatment

There are a few viruses passed from one person to another through sex that can cause some kinds of cancer, like cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, mouth and throat, and Kaposi sarcoma. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses can be passed to others during sex, and can raise the risk for liver cancer. The virus that causes mono (the “kissing disease”), seems to raise the risk of certain cancers, too.

Still, these cancers are not caused by sex itself. They are caused by viruses that can be picked up during sex with someone who has the virus. Most people with these viruses never get cancer. But if you are having sex with a new partner, you can protect yourself from many of these germs by using condoms for every sex act. To learn more about other topics related to sex and cancer, call us at 1-800-227-2345 and ask for Infectious Agents and Cancer, or read it on our website.

Can you get AIDS from having sex?

Yes. The virus that causes AIDS is called the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It can be passed on to others when semen, vaginal fluid, or blood from an infected person gets into someone else’s body. This can happen during oral, vaginal, or anal sex. This virus is passed on in 3 ways:

  • Unprotected sex (sex without a condom) with an infected person
  • Sharing an infected person’s needle or equipment when injecting drugs
  • From a mother to her baby during pregnancy or breast-feeding

The only way to find out if a person has HIV is to take an HIV test. Unless you are sure that neither you nor your sex partner has the virus, you should practice safer sex. For more on safer sex, see “Other problems from chemo that may affect your sex life” in the section called “Chemotherapy (chemo) and sex.” For more on HIV, call us for a copy of HIV Infection and AIDS or read it online.

Can sex during cancer treatment hurt a partner?

Chemo: A few chemo drugs can come out in small amounts in semen. You might want to use condoms while you are getting chemo and for about 2 weeks afterward.

Men who are getting chemo also should avoid causing pregnancy during and for some time after treatment because chemo could damage the DNA in sperm cells. This could lead to birth defects. Ask your doctor about birth control if your partner might get pregnant. You will also want to know when you can stop using birth control for this reason.

Radiation: For men getting radiation from a machine, having sex will not expose their partners to it. It’s different if you have implants that give off radiation (like seed implants for prostate cancer). Those who spend time very close to you might get small amounts in the first few weeks or months. This may be a concern if your partner is pregnant. Talk to your doctor or nurse about any questions or concerns about keeping your partner safe.

When should a person with cancer not have sex?

Ask your doctor if sex would cause a problem any time during or after treatment. Here are some things to think about:

  • After surgery, sex can cause bleeding or pull the stitches. Sex may also raise your chance of an infection. Ask your surgeon when it’s safe to try sex again.
  • Some types of cancer, like cancer of the bladder, may cause bleeding in the genital area. If bleeding gets worse after sex, talk to your doctor about it.
  • During cancer treatment with chemo or radiation, your immune system may not work very well and you can get all kinds of infections. Ask your doctor if sex is too risky. Most doctors say that if you are well enough to be out in public, you are well enough to have sex.
  • There are things you can do to try to prevent urinary tract infections. Some of the germs that can start infections in the bladder or genital area can be washed away by emptying the bladder just after sex. Some doctors also suggest washing the genital area before sex and drinking extra fluids.
  • If you notice any sores, bumps, or warts on your partner’s genitals, or any kind of discharge, find out what’s going on before you decide if it’s safe for you to have sex with this person.

Sex and advanced cancer

A very ill person is not often seen as a sexual person. But everyone has sexual feelings. Touching, sharing, and closeness are always important, even at the end of life.

When cancer is far advanced, a person’s needs for affection, sharing feelings, and touch may become even stronger. You might need to remind your partner how important physical closeness is, even when sex might be too much.

Do you have other questions?

You might have many questions that haven’t been addressed here. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to discuss them with your doctor or other members of your healthcare team. Write them down now so you’ll remember to ask them at your next visit.

Sometimes your doctor might say things that you don’t understand. Speak up – let the doctor know what didn’t make sense to you. Ask the doctor to try again to tell you what you need to know. If you still have trouble, a nurse or social worker can often help with questions.

Last Medical Review: 05/16/2013
Last Revised: 06/12/2013