These webpages cover a range of sensitive topics related to intercourse, sexual health, intimacy and cancer. Although not always discussed, sexual health and intimacy are an important part of your wellbeing, even after a cancer diagnosis. Please note: If you have experienced any type of sexual trauma, we recommend that you seek support and help from a trusted healthcare professional before reading further.
You may be concerned about how blood cancer and treatment will affect your current or future relationships and your sexual health. Your sexuality encompasses physical, psychological, social, emotional and spiritual factors. It includes self-image, body image, fertility, emotional intimacy, sensual feelings and sexual functioning.
Sexual health and sexuality are important regardless of your relationship status. Your sexual health is important even if you are not sexually active. Your sexuality is an integral part of who you are, how you express yourself and how you feel about yourself.
Cancer or cancer treatment may affect your sexual health in several ways:
- You may have a different sense of self-confidence and relationship with your body than you did before being diagnosed with cancer.
- You may feel depressed or anxious or have little or no interest in sex.
- You may feel self-conscious or worry that others see you differently because of physical changes, such as weight gain, weight loss, hair loss, swelling, scars or the presence of a central line or port.
- You may have few chances to be alone or intimate with your partner because of hospitalization or treatment schedules.
- Survivors of childhood cancer may be self-conscious about underdevelopment or delayed development.
- Treatment side effects, such as pain, fatigue, nausea, and/or vomiting, may interfere with your interest in or enjoyment of sex or intimate activities.
- Some cancer treatments may cause sexual side effects, such as lack of desire, erectile disorder or vaginal dryness/pain.
- Your treatment team may advise you to abstain from sexual activities for a period of time if your white blood cell count or platelet count is low due to risk of infection or bleeding.
Talking To Your Doctor About Sexual Health and Cancer
Sexuality and intimacy are often overlooked topics of discussion within healthcare settings. You may need to bring up the topic with a trusted healthcare professional and ask questions. Know that your sexual wellbeing is important, and help is available.
Members of your treatment team can also refer you to other healthcare professionals who may be helpful depending on your situation, including a:
- Fertility doctor
- Pelvic floor therapist
- Oncology social worker
- Certified sex therapist
Questions to Ask Members of Your Healthcare Team
- Will my treatment affect my ability to have sex? If it will, how long will this effect last?
- Is it safe for me to have sex?
- What do I need to know about birth control?
- What do I need to know about protection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
- Will my illness or treatment affect my fertility (ability to have a biological child)?
- Will my treatment cause medically induced menopause?
- What are some options to prevent or prepare for sexual health concerns during treatment?
- Who else can I speak with about this topic? Are there counselors, sex therapists, support groups or other support services in my area?
To help you talk with your healthcare providers, you may want to:
- Bring your partner to your next appointment. Give your partner a chance to ask any questions they may have. This can be done either individually or together.
- Ask if you can record the questions and answers on your phone so you can replay the information later.
- Keep a journal or notebook of questions to ask your physician or counselor at your next visit. Leave space for answers so that you can refer to them afterward.
Disclosing Sexual History and/or Sexual Orientation
When discussing sexual health, your healthcare team may ask about your sexual history. This information can help members of your healthcare team give you the best care. Some sexual activities may call for different types of care to keep you safe and comfortable.
You should never be shamed or denied medical care because of your sexual history, gender or orientation. You deserve to receive care from healthcare professionals who will respect and address all your medical needs. If you are not comfortable with a healthcare professional, find another one who will support you. Try asking a healthcare professional you do trust for a referral.
Finding Sexual Health Professionals
To find a sex therapist, visit The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. You can view each professional’s areas of specialization, such as LGBTQIA+, illness, marriage counseling or trauma.
See LLS’s free fact sheet Sexual Health and Intimacy for more resources.
Sex and Safety During Cancer Treatment
Getting pregnant during cancer treatment can be unsafe for both the pregnant person and the fetus. It is important to always use a form of birth control.
Treatment may cause changes to the menstrual cycle, including early menopause. Even if the menstrual cycle stops during treatment, you may still be able to become pregnant, so it is best to continue to use birth control.
Birth control methods include:
- Condoms also provide protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs.)
- Oral birth control
- Intrauterine device (IUD)
- Vaginal ring
- Spermicide (with or without a diaphragm)
- Non-hormonal vaginal bio adhesive gel
See LLS’s free fact sheet Sexual Health and Intimacy for detailed information about birth control and the effectiveness of different forms of birth control.
Talk to your doctor about which option is best for you. Get instructions for using your method of birth control. Follow the instructions exactly.
Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), also called “sexually transmitted diseases (STDs),” are infections that can be spread through sexual contact, including oral, anal, or vaginal sex and genital touching.
Condoms or other barrier protection, such as dental dams, during vaginal, anal or oral sex help to protect you and your partner from STIs.
Some STIs can be cured with treatment. Others can be managed with treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment of many STIs is important to decrease the risk of more serious medical issues developing and to prevent spreading the disease to others. If your white blood cell counts are low, you may be more at risk for infection, including STIs.
See LLS’s free fact sheet Sexual Health and Intimacy for detailed information on STIs, prevention and treatment.
Other Considerations During Cancer Treatment
Chemotherapy and other drugs can be present in bodily fluids such as saliva, semen and vaginal fluids for up to 48-72 hours depending on the drug. The risk of exposure to chemotherapy or other drugs during sexual activity are not clear. Ask your treatment team if you should take any precautions or avoid sexual activities for some time after treatment to protect your partner from exposure.
If you are receiving external beam radiation therapy, you will not expose your partner to radiation.
Intimacy During Cancer Treatment
Intimacy is closeness between people in personal relationships. Sex and intimacy are not mutually exclusive; one can exist without the other. Sex is not the only way to build or maintain intimate relationships. Additionally, physical intimacy is not always sexual. For example, hugging a friend is a form of intimacy. Trust, safety, communication and acceptance are the most important aspects of intimate relationships.
Ways to Build Intimacy Without Sex
- Write love notes or simple messages in an email, text message or on a sticky note to remind your partner how much you love and appreciate them.
- Set aside time to be alone together. Take your time. Appreciate and enjoy each other and the gift of being able to be fully open with one another.
- Lie naked together.
- Enjoy a meal together.
- Talk a walk together.
- Read a book or watch a movie together and discuss it afterwards.
- Try a new activity together, such as a painting class.
- If you are comfortable, explore other types of physical intimacy: touching, kissing, cuddling, holding hands or massage.
- Ask your healthcare team for a referral to a therapist for couple’s counseling to help improve communication.
- Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free fact sheet, Sexual Health and Intimacy.
- Managing Side Effects
- Dating, Sexuality and Intimacy