Physical Side Effects of Cancer

A nurse holding the hand of a cancer patient

Our teams of survivorship, rehabilitation, nutrition and other specialists can help you manage the side effects that can come with cancer and cancer treatments.

It's important to know that side effects vary by cancer type, treatment, individual traits and many other factors. You should also know that some side effects lessen over time, and others may not appear until months or years after treatment.

Anemia: Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and some cancer types can deplete red blood cells, leaving you tired, lightheaded and short of breath. Your provider can test for anemia and recommend remedies such as rest and a healthy diet.

Bleeding and bruising (thrombocytopenia): Chemotherapy and targeted therapies can deplete platelets – cells that clot blood to stop bleeding. This can leave you vulnerable to bruising and bleeding. Talk with your provider if you notice changes.

Bone loss (osteoporosis): Cancer and treatments such as chemotherapy can lead to bone loss. Weight-bearing exercise, proper nutrition and supplements can help. Bone-density screenings are also recommended.

Cancer recurrence: Cancer survivors face the possibility that their cancer will return. Cancer treatment can also increase the risk that a patient will develop a new type of cancer. Talk with your provider about regular screenings and other follow-up appointments. If cancer runs in your family, you might want to consider genetic counseling and risk assessment.

Constipation: Chemotherapy and pain medications can cause constipation. A high-fiber diet and lots of liquids can help. Talk with your provider before taking any medications. Our cancer dietitians are also available to help.

Diabetes: Cancer medications can raise your blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia), increasing your risk of developing diabetes even after treatment. Let your doctor know if you have dizziness, lightheadedness, or increased thirst or urination.

Diarrhea: Cancer and treatments can lead to diarrhea, putting you at risk of losing too much fluid. Call your provider if you feel lightheaded, have a fever or have dark yellow urine or are not urinating.

Dry mouth: Radiation therapy, especially to your head or neck, can affect your salivary glands. Dry mouth (xerostomia) can affect your sense of taste and your appetite. You also might find it harder to swallow, sleep and speak. Saliva substitutes, sugarless gum or candy, humidifiers or medications can help. Our cancer dietitians can also offer remedies.

Eye problems: Chemotherapy can increase the risk of dry eye syndrome and cataracts. Specialists at the OHSU Casey Eye Institute can provide expert treatment.

Fatigue: Feeling tired is common among cancer survivors. Exercise, relaxation skills and strategies to preserve your energy can help. Hair loss: Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause temporary hair loss. Our Patient Education Resource Center on the seventh floor of the Center for Health & Healing helps with free hats, wigs and scarves.

Hearing loss: Chemotherapy medications and high doses of radiation therapy to the brain can damage hearing. Let your provider know right away if you notice changes.

Heart issues: Chemotherapy and radiation to the chest can damage the heart and blood vessels. Your provider might recommend a healthy diet, weight loss, exercise, medications and other steps.

Hormonal changes: Hormone treatments to fight cancer can cause side effects such as joint pain, fatigue, memory loss, mood changes, reduced sex drive and weight gain. Your provider might suggest hormone replacement or couples therapy to help intimacy.

Hypothyroidism: Radiation therapy can cause your thyroid gland to produce too little thyroid hormone. Effects can include constipation, dry skin, temperature sensitivity and weight gain. Medication can help.

Incontinence: Newer surgical techniques have made this less likely, but urine leakage can be a problem if you had your prostate or bladder removed because of cancer. Exercises, behavior management, medication and in some cases, surgery, may be recommended.

Infection: Chemotherapy can deplete infection-fighting white blood cells, leaving you vulnerable to infections. Hand-washing, staying clean and using extra care with food safety are preventive measures.

Infertility: Some types of radiation and chemotherapy can damage your ability to have children. We can recommend fertility services before treatment to increase your options. 

Learning and memory problems: Chemotherapy can cause trouble with memory, concentration or finding the right word, a condition often called "chemo brain." Our rehabilitation services can help.

Loss of appetite: Cancer treatments can make food less appealing and can cause nausea and vomiting. It's important to talk with your provider before you're dehydrated or severely underweight. Our cancer dietitians can also help.

Lung issues: Chemotherapy or chest radiation therapy can damage the lungs. Oxygen therapy, weight loss, exercise, medication and stopping smoking might be recommended.

Lymphedema: The removal of lymph nodes can leave the body's lymph system unable to drain fluid from parts of the body. This can result in fluid buildup, swelling and pain. Exercise, massage and compression garments are among remedies. OHSU rehabilitation experts can help. 

Nausea and vomiting: Some types of chemotherapy and radiation and some types of cancer, particularly brain tumors, can cause nausea and vomiting. Medications, dietary changes, alternative medicine and other remedies can help. Our cancer dietitians can offer options.

Organ damage: Cancer treatment can lead to organ damage, even years later. Talk with your provider about any new changes you notice. Preventive steps include proper nutrition and exercise, and avoiding smoking and too much alcohol.

Pain: Pain may result from cancer, surgery, nerve damage caused by chemotherapy or other factors. Your provider can offer medications and other remedies.

Peripheral neuropathy: Chemotherapy, surgery or radiation can damage peripheral nerves, the nerves that transmit messages to and from the brain and spinal cord. Our doctors carefully monitor treatment to lessen nerve damage, and our rehabilitation specialists can help you manage symptoms.

Premature aging: Cancer and cancer treatment can speed some signs of aging. Chemotherapy can bring on early menopause, for example, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Men may have erectile dysfunction and higher risk of osteoporosis. Talk with your provider about treatment options if you notice changes.

Sexual dysfunction: Cancer treatments can lead to sexual side effects such as erectile dysfunction or early menopause. Our care providers understand this and can recommend effective treatments. OHSU also offers the area's only program to support the sexual health of women affected by cancer.

Skin problems: Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can leave skin dry, itchy, peeling or red. Lotions, skin protection and other steps can help.

Sleep problems: Difficulty sleeping is common among cancer patients. Talk with your provider about remedies such as behavioral therapy, medication and bedtime habits.