Cancer and Intimate Relationships

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2019

Watch the Moving Forward video on Dating and Sexuality, adapted from this content.

Cancer can make a difference in relationships that include dating and sexual activity. This is true whether you are single or have a partner or spouse. Before and during treatment, it is important to consider your sexual health, your ability to have children, and more.

Cancer treatment and sexual side effects

Cancer and its treatment can cause sexual side effects. These can be physical or emotional. Learn more about possible side effects for men and women, and how your health care team can help.

Some types of cancer and their treatment can affect your ability to have children in the future. This ability is called fertility, and it is important to ask your doctor about it. Learn about fertility and cancer treatment.

If you have a partner

You might not yet have a partner. Or you might have a serious boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, or spouse. If you have a partner, your cancer is likely to have a major effect on their life. It can be very stressful, partly because life-threatening illness is less common for younger couples to face. Emotions that you and your partner might feel include:

  • Sadness

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Anger

  • Hopelessness

Most couples experience changes in the relationship when one person has cancer. These can include changes in roles and responsibilities, sexual health, intimacy, parenting, and plans for the future.

It is important to avoid unprotected sex or pregnancy during cancer treatment. Your partner can get sick from chemotherapy or other drugs in your body, and cancer treatment can severely harm an unborn child. Talk with your doctor about preventing pregnancy and keeping your partner safe during your treatment.

Facing cancer together might make your relationship stronger. Uncertainty can strengthen your love and commitment. You might decide your partnership is even more important than you thought. Or, dealing with cancer and the changes it can cause might weaken the relationship. It is important for you and your partner to talk about your concerns and challenges with each other. Your health care team or a counselor can also help you manage your concerns and find ways to cope.

If you are single

Dating and finding a partner might be important if you are single. But cancer and treatment can cause physical and emotional changes that affect your energy and interest in dating and sex. You might also feel like you are not yourself, do not look good, or have nothing to offer to a potential partner.

Consider these strategies when developing new relationships.

  • Think positively about yourself. For example, make a list of the great qualities you bring to a potential partner.

  • Tell your friends and family you are ready to date. Ask them to connect you with people who might be a match.

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

  • Talk with other cancer survivors who have started dating.

  • Think about how you will respond to rejection if it happens. You are likely to meet some people who do not want to date someone with cancer or a cancer survivor. That is their choice, not a problem with you.

Telling someone about your cancer

You might not want to tell a date about your cancer right away. Or, you might want to, including in your online dating profile if you have one. Before you share, think about how you are most comfortable telling your cancer story. You might simply mention that you have cancer or are a survivor. If the cancer changed your body, you might mention it and explain. Humor can help with any fears and concerns. You can write down what you will say, practice with a friend, and even practice your responses.

Questions your date might ask

You might hear the following questions when you date or get to know someone.

  • Will your cancer come back?

  • Do you have any scars or physical problems?

  • Can you have sex?

  • Can you have children?

There is no perfect time to talk about sex, and it can be awkward with a new partner. But sharing information and concerns can help you worry less and build an emotional bond. It can also include talking about avoiding sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy. Here are some tips for talking about sex and sexual health:

  • Pick your time and place. A neutral, comfortable place is best. You might want to have several short conversations instead of one major talk.

  • Plan what to say ahead of time. You can even practice with a loved one.

  • Practice saying sexual terms out loud if this is difficult for you. You can use medical terms and be ready to explain them in familiar words if needed.

  • Be honest about any possible problems, and tell your partner what helps. Tell your partner what feels good and what is uncomfortable or painful, if anything.

  • Explain or show any physical changes to your body. For example, you might have a scar or breast reconstruction you want to show before having sex.

Finally, it is important to remember that being sexually active can include much more than sex with penetration. You can experiment with other ways of giving and receiving sexual pleasure, or just take your time becoming intimate.

Support for dating and intimacy concerns

If you have problems with emotional or sexual intimacy after cancer and treatment, consider:

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

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

Related Resources

Coping with Changes to Your Body

Dating and Sex for Young Adult Cancer Survivors: Expert Answers

Your Sexual Health and Cancer: What to Know, What to Do

More Information


National Cancer Institute: Self-Image and Sexuality