The role of 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.

     – Ian

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.

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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.

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 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 radiation therapy. If your partner is having external radiation therapy, they will not be radioactive once they return home. If your partner is having internal radiation therapy (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.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

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To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

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Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
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Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
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You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in May 2016
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Support services

Caring for someone with cancer
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Rekindle – relationships after cancer
Personalised online resource addressing sexual concerns for all adults, including partners of cancer survivors

Cancer information

Caring for someone with cancer
Information for carers, including common reactions of carers and how relationships change

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends