Concerns for partners
It can be difficult watching someone you love go through treatment for cancer. 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.
Worrying 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 or uncomfortable for even bringing up the topic for fear of placing pressure or appearing unsupportive. Over time, you both might get used to a relationship without intimacy or sex, assuming that this is the new way of living or “new normal”.
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Communicate openly – This will be more important than ever. It may help you avoid frustrations that can arise from misunderstandings.
If you and your partner have never talked much about sex before or you find it difficult to discuss your different needs without both becoming defensive, consider asking for help. A counsellor, sex therapist or psychologist can suggest ways to approach such conversations. They can help you talk about your sexual concerns and how the physical needs in the relationship can be met.
Try other forms of intimacy – sexual contact, touching, holding, hugging and massaging can help you feel close with your partner and show you love them and find them physically attractive. Physical contact that doesn’t lead to sex can still be comforting and often helps to take the pressure off both of you. Stroking their scars may show your partner that you have accepted the changes to their body. If you are finding the changes hard, try talking sensitively to your partner or to a counsellor.
Acknowledge your feelings – You may have had to face the possibility that your partner could die. As 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.
Look after yourself – 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.
I took hold of my partner’s hand… Her response was, ‘Do you realise this is the first time that you’ve touched me in three weeks?’, and I’m a fairly tactile person.
- 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, if having any type of sex after treatment, can protect you from any potential risk. Your treatment team can give you more details about how long you need to use protection.
- Some chemotherapy drugs can be passed into body fluids such as saliva. Ask your treatment team whether you need to avoid open-mouth kissing and for how long.
- 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, you may need to take some precautions, such as avoiding sexual contact or using condoms or other barrier methods for a certain period of time. Your treatment team will be able to advise you.
- If your partner is receiving immunotherapy for bladder cancer (Bacillus Calmette- GuÃ©rin, 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.
- Speak to the health care team if you need more information.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Helena Green, Clinical Sexologist and Counsellor, inSync for Life, WA; Anita Brown-Major, Occupational Therapist, Thrive Rehab, VIC; Karina Campbell, Consumer; Nicole Kinnane, Nurse Consultant, Gynae-oncology Services, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jessica Medd, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Headway Health and Concord Hospital, NSW; Chris Rivett, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Kath Schubach, Urology Nurse Practitioner, President – Australia and New Zealand Urological Nurses Society (ANZUNS), VIC; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Maria Voukelatos, Consumer. We would like to thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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