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Sexuality and intimacy

A note to partners

It can be difficult watching someone you love go through cancer, its treatments and side effects. 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. going away for a night or two) can help you both relax and focus on things other than cancer.

Thoughts 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 be that your partner seems to have lost interest in sex, and you may feel guilty for even bringing up the topic. All these feelings can lead to misunderstanding and conflict.

Ways to communicate

Open communication will be more important than ever. You and your partner may never have talked much about sex before, or it might be difficult to discuss your different needs without both becoming defensive. A counsellor or psychologist can suggest new ways to approach such conversations. They can help you talk about your feelings and how the physical needs in the relationship can be met.

If your partner is not ready for sexual contact, try other ways of showing you love them and find them physically attractive, such as touching, holding, hugging and massaging them. Stroking their scars may show your partner that you have accepted the changes to their body. If you are finding the changes confronting, try talking sensitively to your partner or to a counsellor. Physical contact that doesn’t lead to sex can still be comforting and often helps to take the pressure off both of you.

"I took hold of my partner’s hand ... Her response was, ‘Do you realise this is the first time that you’ve touched me in three weeks?’, and I’m a fairly tactile person." – Ian

The impact of cancer

You may have had to face the possibility that your partner could die. If they have recovered, you may expect to feel relieved but instead feel emotionally low and drained of energy. Acknowledge that you and your partner have been through a difficult and confronting experience and allow yourselves time to adjust.

Relationships are often challenged through a cancer experience. Take time to look after yourself. Although you don’t have cancer, you have also been affected. Try talking openly about changes to the relationship and how you can readjust your life around them.

Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of the booklet Caring for Someone with Cancer, or to speak with a cancer nurse and be linked with a carer in a similar situation.

Safety concerns for partners
  • Be assured that it is not possible for your partner to transmit cancer through intimate activities such as kissing or intercourse.
  • Sexual activity will not make cancer spread, nor will it make the cancer come back.
  • Chemotherapy drugs may stay in your partner’s body fluids for some days. Using condoms or other barrier methods for a week after treatment can protect you from any potential risk.
  • It will usually be safe to have sex after radiotherapy. If your partner is having external radiotherapy, they will not be radioactive once they return home. If your partner is having internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy or radioisotope therapy), you may need to take some precautions, such as avoiding sexual contact or using condoms or other barrier methods, particularly during pregnancy – your treatment team will be able to advise you.
  • 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 have to avoid sex for 48 hours after each treatment, and then use condoms or other barrier methods during the rest of the treatment cycle and for six weeks after the final treatment.

Expert content reviewers:

Prof Jane Ussher, Centre for Health Research, Western Sydney University, NSW; A/Prof Susan Carr, Head of Psychosexual Service, Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC; Michelle DeBock, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Kim Hobbs, Clinical Specialist Social Worker, Department of Social Work and Department of Gynaecological Cancer, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Michael Lowy, Sexual Health Physician, The Male Clinic, Woolloomooloo, NSW; Pauline Shilkin, Consumer; Glen Torr, Consumer; Dr Charlotte Tottman, Clinical Psychologist, Allied Consultant Psychologists and Flinders University, SA; and Dr Paige Tucker, Research Registrar and Gynaecological Oncology Clinical and Surgical Assistant, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA.

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