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Relationships and sex

Impact on relationships

Serious illness within a family can be very challenging for partner relationships. As well as dealing with the threat of losing a loved one, treatments make many demands on partners’ time and emotional resources. Unfortunately relationships sometimes break down under the strain, especially if serious problems existed in the relationship prior to the diagnosis.

However, many people report that they become closer and that they experience a strengthening of their relationship through facing this difficult time together. A changed attitude to life, which involves a heightened appreciation of everyday family life and close relationships, is also common.

It is important to be aware that treatment closure can be a very sensitive time when there is a need to deal with issues within your relationship. Many people benefit from receiving the support from someone outside the family who can help them deal with the issues that the illness has raised within their relationship and their family. We are here to support you and understand your concerns and, if necessary, to refer you to other support or counselling services. Please contact us if you’d like to talk.

Let’s talk about sex

Sexuality and blood cancer treatment: it seems that a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. But rest assured that many people have the same questions you do about sexuality and intimacy.

It’s possible that your sex life will be impacted by your diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Here’s a brief overview on what might change and what adaptations you might need to make, so that you are prepared on what to expect. Remember that everyone’s diagnosis and treatment plan are different, so what you experience might be different to someone else.

There are many occasions where you’ll need to clarify something with your doctor or treating specialist. Don’t feel embarrassed: sex is a part of life, so how it’s impacted by your diagnosis is just another regular topic for discussion with your health professional.

How you might be feeling

When you’re first diagnosed with a blood cancer, it’s natural that your primary focus is on getting well. You may feel anxious at the thought of having sex after treatment, as you could be unsure about how you’ll perform or you might even feel self-conscious about being naked in front of your partner.

You might also find that other parts of your life are affected, like:

  • your feelings
  • your body’s production of the hormones that are needed for sexual response
  • your physical ability to give and receive sexual pleasure
  • your energy levels – if you’re feeling very fatigued from treatment, you probably won’t feel like having sex
  • if you’re a man, you may experience erectile difficulties
  • women might be experiencing menopausal symptoms.

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and sex

The side effects of chemo and radiotherapy can take their toll, so your desire to have sex might be greatly reduced during treatment.

If you do feel up to having sex, remember to always use condoms during the seven days following a treatment session. This will decrease the risk of your partner being exposed to the chemo drugs, as they can be excreted in your bodily fluids. Condoms are also recommended as trying to fall pregnant during treatment is usually best avoided, as chemotherapy and radiotherapy could affect an unborn child.


If you are neutropenic (have a low level of white cells, which fight infection) or have low platelet counts, you should always check with your doctor before getting the go-ahead to resume regular sex. If you’re in one of these groups, the risk of getting an infection is much higher.

Oral sex

Always use protection – that means a condom for men, and a dental dam or female condom for women. Also take care to be gentle, as excess force can cause abrasions (which need to be avoided if you’re at risk for infection).

Getting back into it

  • talk openly with your partner: discuss any concerns you may have about resuming sexual activity, and let them know if you need them to change anything that they typically do
  • be open to adapting and changing your routine
  • ask your partner how they feel about everything that’s happening: they might have concerns of their own
  • take it slow if you want to. You might like to explore different ways to achieve sexual pleasure and intimacy – sometimes just being touched by your partner can re-establish that intimate bond.
  • be patient
  • be wary of being too rough or vigorous. As mentioned earlier, vaginal and penile abrasions can become infected, so make sure you take it easy. Speak with your doctor if you are concerned about knowing your limits.

If you would like to learn more about how you can better deal with the emotional and physical side-effects of treatment, chat to one of our Blood Cancer Support Coordinators. They are all experienced health professionals, with qualifications in nursing and social work. Contact us on 1800 620 420.

Last updated on June 19th, 2019

Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.

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