Sex and Women 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, 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 AIDS can also be passed to others during sex, and can raise the risk for a number of types of 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 having using condoms for every sex act. To learn more about safer sex, contact the American Sexual Health Association (see “To learn more,” below).

Can sex during chemo or radiation treatment hurt your partner?

A few chemo drugs can come out in small amounts in vaginal fluids. You may want to use condoms while you are getting chemo and for about 2 weeks after that. Having sex with you will not expose your partner to radiation unless you have an implant that gives off radiation. Talk to your doctor or nurse about any questions or concerns. Do not get pregnant during treatment. Ask your doctor what kind of birth control is best for you and how long you will need to use it after treatment.

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 infection. Ask your surgeon when it’s safe to try sex again.
  • Some types of cancer, like cancer of the cervix or bladder, may cause bleeding in the genital area. If bleeding gets worse after sex, talk to your doctor about it.
  • During cancer treatment your immune system may not work very well and you can get serious infections. Ask your doctor if sex is too risky. Most doctors say that if you’re well enough to be out in public, you’re well enough to have sex.
  • Some of the germs that can start an infection in the bladder or genital area can be washed away by urinating to empty the bladder just after sex. Some doctors also suggest washing the genital area before sex and drinking extra fluids. If you have urinary tract infections often, your doctor may give you antibiotics to take after sex to help prevent infection.
  • If you notice any sores, bumps, or warts on your partner’s genitals, or a white or greenish-gray fluid (other than semen) in the opening at the tip of the penis, find out what’s going on before you have sex with this person.

What about sex and advanced cancer or at the end of life?

A very ill person isn’t 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 of feelings, and touch may become even stronger. You may 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 discussed here. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask your doctor or other members of your healthcare team. Write the questions down now so you won’t forget to ask them at your next visit.

Sometimes your doctor might say things you don’t understand. It’s OK to speak up. Let the doctor know what doesn’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 these questions.

Last Medical Review: 05/09/2013
Last Revised: 05/09/2013