Dating and Intimacy

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2016

Single adults with cancer often experience physical and emotional changes during and after cancer treatment. These may affect their dating and sexual relationships.

It’s normal to have fears and concerns about dating and sexual intimacy. However, these concerns should not keep you from pursuing relationships.

Tips for pursuing new relationships

If you are struggling to start new relationships or you are anxious about dating, consider these options:

  • Spend time with friends and family. Tell them you are ready to meet potential dating partners.

  • Try a new activity, join a club, or take a class.

  • Make a list of positive qualities about yourself that make you a good partner.

  • Practice a response to rejection, if that possibility concerns you.

  • Talk with other cancer survivors who have started dating and are in new relationships.

  • Don't give up on dating or hope for a new relationship if someone doesn't share your feelings.

When to share your experience with cancer

People’s preferences about when and how to share their cancer experiences differ.

You may feel that talking about your diagnosis and treatment is too personal to share immediately. Or, you may worry that it could scare away a potential partner. You can wait until the development of a mutual level of trust before sharing your story.

Or, you may feel that not telling a date about your cancer may feel dishonest or insincere. If so, you may prefer to tell a new partner before a relationship becomes serious.

How to share your experience with cancer

Before sharing, consider how you would feel most comfortable doing it. Some people may simply talk about the cancer experience. Others may choose to show scars or other body changes associated with cancer and its treatment. And others may prefer to express their fears and concerns through humor.

Potential topics to address

Some issues to consider mentioning in conversation include:

  • The possibility of recurrence

  • Physical limitations because of cancer or its treatment

  • Your feelings about dating or starting a relationship  

Other types of preparation before sharing

These steps may help you feel more confident entering conversation:

  • Write down what you plan to say

  • Practice with a friend

  • Prepare responses to possible questions

Learn more about talking with a partner.

Concerns about sexuality and intimacy in a new relationship

As a relationship deepens, you may wonder how cancer affects sexuality and intimacy.

Cancer and cancer treatment may cause sexual side effects, physically and emotionally. Typically, concerns about potential side effects depend on your cancer experience and life stage.

Physical side effects

Sexual side effects in women may include:

  • Decrease or loss of sexual desire

  • Inability to achieve or maintain sexual arousal

  • Vaginal dryness

  • Inability or difficulty to achieve an orgasm

  • Pain during sex

  • Unpleasant sensations or numbness in the genitals

  • Fertility problems

Sexual side effects in men may include:

  • Decrease or loss of sexual desire

  • Inability to get or maintain an erection, which is called erectile dysfunction

  • Ejaculation and orgasm problems. These may include premature ejaculation, urination during ejaculation, and dry ejaculation.

  • Pain during sex

  • Fertility problems

Emotional side effects

Other physical side effects may not directly affect sexual function but may affect the way you feel about your body and sexual attractiveness. Such changes may include losing a testicle, having a colostomy, losing weight or hair, or having scars or skin changes.

Even if your body does not appear to have changed from cancer or cancer treatment, you may experience changes in your self-image.

Talk with your health care team about potential sexual side effects. They can help you find ways to manage or lessen the symptoms.

Communication about sexuality and intimacy in a new relationship

Communication is important for healthy sexuality in any relationship. In particular, sharing cancer-related concerns may help alleviate worries and boost emotional intimacy and trust.

There is no "perfect time" to talk about sex. However, it is best to talk about it with a new partner before becoming sexually intimate.

If you are initially uncomfortable talking about sexuality, consider these approaches:

  • Decide what you want to say in advance. Write down your thoughts or share them with a friend.

  • Pick a time to talk with your partner when you are both relaxed and not rushed. And pick a place that is private and neutral.

  • Have multiple shorter conversations, if that feels more comfortable.

  • Practice saying sexual terms aloud, alone, if you struggle to use those words. Most sex therapists recommend using medical terms, rather than slang or euphemisms.

  • Be honest about potential problems, such as erectile dysfunction or vaginal dryness. And discuss things you both can do to help minimize these problems.

  • Explain or show your partner any physical changes to your body.

  • Guide your partner to the positions and activities that provide the most pleasure and cause the least discomfort.

  • Agree to let your partner know if anything becomes painful.

  • Keep in mind that sexual intimacy involves more than intercourse. Experiment with other ways of giving and receiving sexual pleasure.

  • Remember that a partner who truly cares about you will accept you as you are.

Resources for support

If you experience ongoing problems with emotional and sexual intimacy, consider these options:

  • Talk with a counselor or sex therapist. These professionals help address problems with communication and intimacy.

  • Join a support group. These forums provide a safe place to share and learn from others with similar situations.

More Information

Dating, Sex, and Reproduction

Cancer.Net Videos: Dating and Sexuality for Young Adults with Cancer

Online Communities for Support

Additional Resource

National Cancer Institute: Self Image and Sexuality