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Is Cancer Contagious?

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Updated September 18, 2013

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Question: Is Cancer Contagious?
My boyfriend has cancer and I am worried about it possibly being contagious. He has lymphoma and was diagnosed about 3 months ago. He has to go for chemotherapy every so often and I often go with him. I love him very much, but am very scared that I might somehow get lymphoma, too. I am too ashamed to ask my boyfriend because I think it would hurt his feelings. Can I catch cancer by touching him or kissing him?

Is it safe for us to have sex? I am on birth control pills and we usually don't use a condom. Am I putting myself at risk for getting cancer? Is cancer contagious?

Answer: Cancer isn't contagious in the conventional sense, as in "catching" the flu or a cold. It is not classified as an infectious or communicable disease. Cancer isn't spread through kissing, touching, or even through unprotected sexual intercourse.

If you hug or kiss someone with cancer, you are not at risk of developing cancer because of it. No evidence suggests that cancer is contagious. In fact, intimacy through touch is recommended for people with cancer. It can help them cope with their disease better and helps to ease feelings of being alone during their cancer battle, which can be common in people with cancer. Feel free to touch, kiss, hug, and even have intercourse -- if he is up to it, of course!

While cancer is not contagious, it can be inherited in some cases. Genetic mutations can be inherited from a parent at conception, making someone at risk of developing a certain type of cancer.

Also, there are some types of cancer that are caused by viruses that are contagious. For example, women who are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) are at risk of developing cervical cancer. People infected with HIV are at risk of several types of cancer because the virus suppresses their immune system. Some parasites may also increase the risk of developing cancer, as well.

Intimacy During Cancer Treatment

Now that you are aware that the cancer is not contagious, there are some things you should know about intimacy during cancer treatment and how it may affect you and your partner. While most people with cancer do maintain fairly normal sex lives during treatment, it's important for them to discuss with their doctor how treatment may affect or hinder sexual activity. Certain precautions may need to be taken to protect you and him.

For example, if your partner is undergoing chemotherapy, it may be advised that he use a condom for a certain amount of days following chemotherapy. Trace amounts of chemotherapy may be present in his semen and you could be exposed during intercourse. Using a latex condom during any type of sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) is necessary for the first few days after having chemotherapy. Your partner's doctor can better advise you on the exact length of time that he'll need to use a condom.

His doctor may also recommend avoid sexual intercourse altogether during nadir periods. These are periods following chemotherapy when white cell counts are at their lowest, making your boyfriend highly vulnerable to infections.

With that being said, it is extremely important to reduce the risk of exposing your partner to germs through touching, kissing, and other physical contact. After chemotherapy, a person's white cell count plummets, making it hard for their bodies to defend against germs, viruses and bacteria. You can help reduce his risk of developing an infection by:

  • practicing good hand-washing habits
  • using alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water isn't available
  • staying away from him if you feel ill
  • following his doctor's recommendation about abstaining from sex and using protection

Sources:

Daniels D, Grytdal S, Wasley A; Surveillance for acute viral hepatitis - United States, 2007.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5803a1.htm

Hildesheim, A, Schiffman, M, Bromley, C, et al. Human papillomavirus type 16 variants and risk of cervical cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst 2001; 93:315.

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