Cancer, sex and relationships

This information is about cancer, sex and relationships. It is for teenagers and young people who are having or have had cancer treatment. It may also help carers, family members and friends.

Most people have questions about relationships and sex at some point during or after cancer treatment. You may have questions because cancer can:

  • change your body
  • affect your confidence
  • change how you feel about sex
  • make you worry about what people think about you.

These things are personal and can be difficult to talk about. You may also have a lot of other changes to cope with and think about. Cancer can affect many areas of your life, such as work, study or where you live. When these things change, your social life and relationships may have to change too. It is important to get all the information and support you need. If you want to talk to someone but you are not sure where to start, you might find it helpful to read our information about talking about sex and relationships, and who can help.  

If you are in a relationship

If you are in a relationship, cancer can make things complicated. Some couples find their relationship grows stronger, while others find it hard to make it work. Every relationship is different. 

Making time for each other

Cancer can take up a lot of your time. You may have a lot of appointments and hospital visits. You may have to stay in hospital or travel far to have treatment. This can mean spending less time with your partner than you are used to. You may not be able to do as many things together if you are in hospital or recovering from treatment.

Try to make the most of the times that you are together. This may be time together as a couple with friends and family. Or it may mean deciding to spend some time together without other people.

Try not to worry about spending some time apart. It can help build a healthy and strong relationship. If there is no way to see each other face to face, try to keep in touch using video calls, texting or social media.

Changes in your relationship

After a cancer diagnosis, it can sometimes feel like your partner or other people close to you do not feel as close. There may be lots of reasons for this:

Lots of people do not know much about cancer or cancer treatment. They may not understand what you are going through or how you feel.

  • Some people find it hard to cope with feeling upset or scared. They may avoid talking about what is happening, or even avoid spending time with you.
  • If you have to stop working or studying during cancer treatment, you may feel you have less in common with your partner.
  • Your relationship might change because your parents or other people are suddenly more involved in your life.
  • Your partner may not know how they fit into your life and what their role is.

Feeling close and comfortable in your relationship is important. But your feelings may change over time. Whatever you are feeling, keep talking and listening to each other. You could start by telling each other about your day or how you are both feeling.

What about sex?

If you have sex, you may find you are less interested during cancer treatment. Side effects can sometimes make having sex physically difficult. Or you may just feel too tired or not relaxed enough.

Even without cancer, people can find their interest in sex changes over time for lots of reasons. This is common and it is not usually a problem. 

It is helpful to talk with your partner about how you both feel and what you are thinking. Try to be clear and open about what you want. Remember, there should never be any pressure to have sex. Some people enjoy sex and want to keep their sex life as normal as possible during cancer treatment. It is not like that for everyone. Do whatever is right for you.

If you do have sex, make sure you use the right contraception. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can explain more about types of contraception that protect you and your partner, and that prevent pregnancy.

If a relationship ends

Sometimes relationships do not last. Going through a break-up can be hard for anyone. But it may seem even harder when you are coping with cancer too. However the relationship ends, it is normal to feel some strong emotions.

Things will get better with time. Until then, these tips might help:

  • It is okay to be sad, angry or even relieved that the relationship is over. Give yourself time and be honest about what you are feeling.
  • Try to do things you enjoy and that make you feel good about yourself.
  • Do something that interests you, like a hobby. Or try something new.
  • Spend some time with friends.


If you are not in a relationship

You do not need to be in a relationship to have questions about how cancer can affect your sex life or relationships. But you may worry that people will not expect you to think about it because you are single. Your healthcare team are there to answer any questions you have. Try not to be embarrassed, and ask them about anything you are worried about. Your healthcare team will be used to talking about these things.

If you are not sure about your gender or sexuality Finding out who you are, and what you like sexually, is part of life. Cancer does not change that. Some people have a clear sense of their gender and who they find attractive. Others need time to work it out.

It is common to have questions about gender or sexuality, but this can also be stressful. You may feel like it is another worry when you are already coping with a lot. You may worry about how people will react if you tell them you are not sure about these things.

What about sex?

It is natural to worry about what sex will be like after cancer treatment. It does not matter whether you have had sex before or not. Cancer and its treatment can make your body look, feel or work differently. This can be hard to deal with. Some changes may be short term, such as hair loss. But some may be permanent, for example losing a limb (amputation).

It can take a while to adjust to any changes to your body. If your appearance has changed, you may wonder if other people find you attractive. If your feelings or confidence are stopping you
having sex, it can help to talk about it. Sometimes practical advice about coping with a change can help. You may choose to talk to:

  • a friend or family member you trust
  • someone from your healthcare team, such as your cancer doctor, specialist nurse or GP
  • an organisation that can provide advice and support.

Most people can have sex after cancer treatment, but for some people sex is more complicated.

If you are starting a new relationship

Starting a new relationship can be exciting, but sometimes a bit scary too. It can be fun getting to know someone and letting them get to know you. But you might find it hard to know how to talk about cancer.

If you are still having cancer treatment, a new partner may not understand what you are going through. If you meet someone after you have finished cancer treatment, they may not even know you had cancer. You might not want to talk about it or feel it is too soon to tell them. If the cancer has affected your body, sex life or fertility, you may be worried about how a new partner will react.

It is your decision how, when and what you tell a new partner. Some people are comfortable talking about their experiences from the start of a relationship. Others prefer to wait. It can help to talk to someone else before deciding what to do. You might choose to talk to a family member, friend or health professional.

If you decide it is the right time to talk to your partner, think about what you want them to understand. For example, what are the most important things for you? Or what are the things that worry you? 

Relationships are often made stronger by good communication and honesty. Here are some tips:

  • Think about how much you want to share. You may only want to tell your partner the type of cancer or some things about your treatment.
  • Introduce the subject gently. You could start with something like, ‘This is going to be hard, but I need to tell you something’.
  • Try to give small amounts of information. Your partner may not be able to take everything in at one time.
  • When you start talking, remember to listen too. Your partner might have different questions or worries that they want to talk about.