Is Cancer Contagious?

A Common Question With Uncommon Considerations

Portrait of calm young female cancer survivor. Credit: Zave Smith / Getty Images

The word "cancer" can elicit fear and confusion in even the best of people. It is one of those subjects we don’t like to talk about, and, as a result, there remains a lot of basic questions that don’t get answered. One of them is whether cancer is contagious.

It's a fair thing to ask given that certain sexually transmitted infections like human papillomavirus (HPV) are known to be linked to the development of cancer.

This could very well lead someone to believe that the cancer was "passed" during sex and suggest that other forms of cancer could be spread, as well. 

You Can't "Catch" Can’t Cancer in the Conventional Sense

Let’s start with the bottom line: cancer is not contagious in the conventional sense of the word, as in "catching" the flu or a cold. It is not classified as an infectious disease and therefore cannot be spread through kissing, touching, or even unprotected sex.

So it’s perfectly okay to hug or kiss someone with cancer. In fact, intimacy through touch is advised. It can not only help a friend or loved one better cope with their disease, it can ease any feelings of isolation a person may have during cancer therapy.

In a less conventional sense, cancer can be indirectly “passed” from parent to child through genetics. A number of genetic mutations are inherited by offspring during conception, some of which can place that individual at higher risk for certain cancers.

This doesn’t mean that the person will get cancer; it simply means that the likelihood is greater than if the mutation wasn't there.

There are even some cancers that associated with viral infection. A prime example is the aforementioned HPV, wherein women and gay men infected the virus are at far greater risk of developing, respectively, cervical cancer and anal cancer than persons in the general population.

 

Similarly, people living with HIV are at risk of developing several types of cancer as a result of the breakdown of their immune system. Some parasites are also known to increase cancer risk.

Intimacy During Cancer Treatment

Intimacy and cancer are not mutually exclusive; one doesn’t preclude the other. You can’t pass the disease to each other or make cancer “worse“ by having sex.

While most people with cancer do maintain fairly normal sex lives during treatment, it's important to ask your doctor how treatment may affect or hinder sexual activity. Certain precautions may need to be taken.

For example, if a male partner is undergoing chemotherapy, he may be advised to use a latex condom for several days following completion of treatment. Trace amounts of chemotherapy drugs may be present in his semen to which the female partner may be exposed during intercourse. Using a condom during vaginal, anal, or oral sex is considered necessary until the drugs are completely out of his system. A doctor can better advise you as to the exact timing.

Your doctor may also recommend the avoidance of sex during the so-called nadir period. These are the times following chemotherapy when the white cell counts are at their lowest, making the person on treatment highly susceptible to certain infections.

During the nadir period, you can further reduce the risk of illnesses by

  • practicing good hand-washing habits.
  • having an alcohol-based hand sanitizer on hand when soap and water aren't available.
  • staying away from the partner on treatment if you or anyone else feels ill.

In the end, any activity that can potentially transmit a virus, bacteria, or other infective agents should be avoided until the white blood count is allowed to recover adequately.

But, as for cancer itself, worry not; you cannot catch it. The only thing you will miss by avoiding a person with cancer is the opportunity for genuine intimacy.

And that may be something from which you can never fully recover.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. “Is Cancer Contagious?” Oklahoma City, OK; accessed April 16, 2017.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Surveillance for acute viral hepatitis - United States, 2007.: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Atlanta, GA; last reviewed August 2009.

Hildesheim, A.; Schiffman, M.; Bromley, C: et al. “Human papillomavirus type 16 variants and risk of cervical cancer.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2001; 93(4):315-318.

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