Physical Side Effects of Cancer and Cancer Treatment
Short -Term Side Effects
Survivors often find themselves coping with the physical side effects of cancer and its treatment after they have stopped seeing their cancer care team regularly. These physical side effects along with juggling the emotional and social impacts of cancer can seem overwhelming. Every survivor reacts differently from cancer and its treatment and while some side effects are easily managed, others may require specialized care.
Physical side effects can vary greatly depending on the type of cancer and treatment you had. Some side effects include:
Many drugs used to treat cancer can increase your blood glucose levels (hyperglycemia), even if you don’t have diabetes. Hyperglycemia doesn’t always mean you’ll get diabetes, but it does increase your risk of developing it—even after you’ve finished treatment. You should let your provider know if you are experiencing increased thirst, urination or experience dizziness or lightheadedness.
Radiation therapy, especially in your head or neck area, can affect your salivary glands. If you’ve had radiation, you may get Xerostomia (dry mouth). Things might taste differently, and your appetite may be reduced. Or you might find it harder to swallow, sleep and speak. Treatments that can help include saliva substitutes, chewing sugarless gum/candy, humidifiers or certain medications.
Many survivors comment they always feel tired, regardless of how much sleep they get. It’s usually caused by the cancer, treatment and/or its side effects. If you are experiencing fatigue, exercise, relaxation skills and energy conservation may help relieve symptoms.
Some cancer treatments are designed to eliminate the sex hormones your cancer requires to grow. If you’ve had this kind of treatment, you may experience side effects such as:
- Decreased muscle mass
- Decreased sex drive
- Joint pain
- Loss of body hair
- Memory loss
- Mood changes
- Weight gain
Your provider may suggest hormone replacement or couples therapy to help improve intimacy.
Radiation therapy to treat head and neck cancers, as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, can cause your thyroid gland to produce too little thyroid hormone. This is called hypothyroidism. Symptoms may include constipation, dry skin, temperature sensitivity and weight gain. You may need to take medication to regulate your thyroid hormone production after cancer treatment.
If you’ve had your prostate or bladder removed due to cancer, you may experience urine leakage. Advancements in surgical techniques have helped reduce the likelihood of incontinence; however, problems with urinary control may occur. Treatments may include exercises, behavioral management, medication and, in some cases, surgery.
Not all cancer treatments will impair your ability to have children, but some chemotherapy or radiation can cause infertility. Addressing family planning prior to cancer treatment will increase your options rather than limit them.
Learning and Memory Problems
If you’re going through or have recently completed chemotherapy, you may feel like you have problems with memory, concentration or finding the right word. Many people call it “chemo-brain,” and researchers are finding that cancer may affect verbal learning or memory. The good news is that this side effect often doesn’t last and will lessen with time.
When lymph nodes are removed or damaged, it affects the flow of lymph fluid in that side of the body. Lymphedema can happen when lymph nodes under the arm are damaged by radiation or surgically removed, and the remaining lymph nodes cannot drain enough fluid from these areas. This causes fluid buildup, swelling and pain. Most women treated for breast cancer will not develop lymphedema, but it can show up many years later. However, advances in breast cancer treatments are leading to the need for less tissue and fewer lymph nodes to be removed, meaning a lower risk of lymphedema.
Chemotherapy, surgery or radiation can damage your peripheral nerves. Peripheral nerves are located further away from the brain and spinal cord: They communicate information on pain and control arm and leg movement. Peripheral neuropathy is one of the most difficult side effects of cancer treatment and can be short-term or long-tem depending on several factors such as:
- Your age
- If you have diabetes or HIV
- Prescription drugs you are taking
- Any family history of neuropathy
- The total dose of chemotherapy given over time
Sometimes, certain supplements such as Vitamin E or calcium/magnesium can help manage peripheral neuropathy symptoms; talk to your doctor to find out if this can help you.
Osteoporosis (bone loss) can be caused by the cancer itself or by its treatment. Chemotherapy and steroids can damage your bones, or affect the hormones that contribute to building strong bones. It can affect you especially if you’ve had lymphoma, leukemia, breast or prostate cancer or a stem cell transplant. Proper nutrition and moderate weight bearing exercise, along with possible calcium and Vitamin D supplementation can go a long way toward preventing or managing weaker bone density. Bone density screenings are recommended.
Pain can be a side effect of treatment or result from the cancer itself. Even after your cancer treatment is complete, you may still feel pain. For example, chemotherapy can damage your nerves, and radiation can cause sores. If you’ve had surgery, you may experience pain as your body heals, or even phantom pain in a missing limb or breast. There are many ways to treat pain; talk to your provider if you start feeling a new pain or if the type of pain you’re feeling changes.
Cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormones all can cause sexual side effects ranging from erectile dysfunction (ED) to early menopause. In addition, anxiety about your cancer and treatment may have left you feeling stressed, depressed or self-conscious. The good news is that many sexual problems can be helped greatly or even managed completely: Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to bring this topic up with your doctor if you have concerns or questions.
Long-Term Side Effects
In addition to short-term issues, you may also cope with several long-term side effects as a cancer survivor.
Cancer Recurrence or Secondary Cancers
Cancer survivors face the possibility that the cancer will recur or spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. That’s why it’s so important to see your provider for regular follow-up after your treatment is finished. Some people are later diagnosed with a new cancer, totally unrelated to the previous cancer: This is called a secondary cancer. Many secondary cancers are due to genetics; if you have a history of cancer in your family, it may affect your treatment. Talk to your provider to help determine if genetic testing is right for you. Cancer screenings such as mammograms, colonoscopy, and skin exams are especially important for survivors.
Cancer treatment can damage nearly any organ in your body. Sometimes organ damage may not happen until years after your cancer. Make sure to talk to your doctor about any new changes you notice in your body. Following a healthy lifestyle can also help avoid any further organ damage: Eat right, exercise, don’t drink too much alcohol and don’t smoke.
Cancer and its treatments can cause certain signs of aging to happen earlier than average. For example, chemotherapy can bring on early menopause, and thus a higher risk of osteoporosis. Men also have a higher risk of osteoporosis as well as erectile dysfunction. Some of these side effects can be corrected or prevented so it is important to follow up with your provider if you notice any changes.