Sex and cancer treatment

Remember that the legal age to have sex in the UK is 16 for you and your partner. 

On this page you can find out more about how to stay safe while having sex.  

  • Having cancer doesn’t stop you being interested in sex
  • You need to understand how to stay safe if you’re having sex 
  • It might feel like an awkward topic to talk about but it’s important you have all the information 

There might be times when you don’t feel at all interested in sex, and there might be times when you’re feeling ill or exhausted and sex is the last thing on your mind.  

But on the days when you’re feeling OK, you might find yourself thinking about sex and that’s completely natural. The good news is that, unless your doctor tells you otherwise, you’re fine to have sex. 

If you’re having penetrative sex, you do need to use a condom. That’s really important. So stay safe and check with your doctor or nurse if there are any other precautions you should take.

It might feel like a difficult topic to bring up but they’re medical professionals who talk about things like this all the time and they’re there to help you with any questions you might have, so make sure you bring up anything that’s on your mind. 

    Can I have sex while I'm having chemotherapy?

    If you’re having penetrative sex and you or your partner is having chemo, always use a condom – even for oral sex and even if you’re using other contraception. That’s because it’s possible for men and women to pass on chemicals from chemo drugs during sex.

    So, keep protection handy – and use it for at least a couple of weeks after you’ve finished treatment. It’s important to not become pregnant while you’re having chemo. 

    Will I lose interest in sex?

    This is common and can happen for lots of reasons, including hormonal changes, tiredness, anxiety and just not feeling great about yourself. You might find your confidence takes a hit and you feel less comfortable being physically intimate with people.

    Losing interest in sex can be a side effect of radiotherapy and certain drugs too. Often once your treatment is over you’ll probably start to feel like having sex again. But if you’re still not as interested in sex a while after you’ve finished treatment, it can be helpful to talk to a psychologist or counsellor.

    Talk to your partner about how you’re feeling and any worries you might have. Let them know what you’re going through. Listen to what they’re thinking about too, as they might also be worried.  

    If your treatment has had an impact on your hormones you might be referred to an endocrinologist, they specialise in glands and hormones and can offer advice. You might be feeling pretty unsexy but that doesn’t mean your partner has stopped finding you attractive. And remember there’s plenty you can do to enjoy each other’s company without having sex. 

    How might physical changes to my body impact my sex life?

    Cancer and cancer treatment can cause various changes to your body that might affect your sex life. You might find it hard to get hard (get an erection).  

    Getting an erection can be difficult if:  

    • Cancer, or cancer treatment, has damaged nerves and blood vessels in your pelvis  
    • You’ve had surgery to your prostate, bowel, testicles, bladder or rectum 
    • You’ve got low levels of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone can be reduced by radiotherapy or surgery to your testicles, or by treatment to the pituitary gland in your brain  
    • You’re stressed and/or tired.  

    If this happens to you, don’t be embarrassed to talk about it. To your doctors and nurses it’s just another medical conversation, and one they’ve had plenty of times before – and you can ask to speak to a man if you’d prefer. They’ll be able to help you understand things and have suggestions of things that might help.  

    You might find it hurts to come. This can happen if part of your penis, called the urethra, gets inflamed during radiotherapy. This usually stops happening a few weeks after treatment. In the meantime, you might want to avoid having sex. 

    You might not come when you have an orgasm  

    This is called a dry orgasm. Some surgery for testicular or prostate cancer might cause this. Some people say that it doesn’t change the way an orgasm feels; others think it can make things feel a bit less intense.  

    You might find your vagina is dry

    This is caused by low levels of the hormone oestrogen, and can make sex painful or uncomfortable. Various treatments, including radiotherapy to your pelvis and chemotherapy, can reduce your oestrogen levels.

    Your doctor or nurse will let you know if there are tablets or gel that are suitable for you to use. Water-based lubricants, which are available at pharmacists, should help too – just make sure you choose a lubricant that is safe to use with condoms. 

    Surgery might affect parts of your body linked to sex

    If you need to have surgery as part of your cancer treatment, you might find that your body image is affected and you feel less like having sex – particularly at first.

    Surgery on parts of your body including your testicles, breasts, ovaries and vulva might change the way you feel about sex too, or might make it more difficult to have sex. Having a limb amputated can also impact how you feel about sex. If you’re worried about any of these things, try and let your doctors and nurses know. 

    More information

    If you’d like to find out more about how to have safe sex, and how to keep yourself safe in sexual relationships OUTpatients has lots more on their information hub

    OUTpatients is the UK’s only LGBTIQ+ cancer charity. They are led by and for LGBTIQ+ people affected by cancer, and work hard to support and advocate for their community.

    If you are concerned about a child or adult who may be at risk, please contact the NSPCC Helpline or speak to your local Police service by dialling 101 or 999 in an emergency.