Late effects of cancer and how to manage them

May 22, 2019 | by Lisa Stucky-Marshall, APRN

You’ve finished cancer treatment, which can be a relief. But you may not be able to put it behind you yet. Even when you’re no longer in active treatment, the effects of cancer can linger.

There are a range of emotions that come with adjusting to a new reality after cancer. Some survivors feel depressed, anxious or moody. You may also worry about cancer returning, which can make it difficult to move on.

Then there are the physical challenges due to late effects, or aftereffects, of cancer treatment. Certain treatments (e.g., chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery) may cause mild to serious side effects that appear right away — or months or years after you’ve finished treatment.

Some cancer-related late side effects may include:

  • Bone loss, thinning of the bones
  • Brain changes (e.g., memory loss, problems concentrating, personality changes, movement problems, cognitive problems, headaches)
  • Changes in sexual function
  • Chronic pain
  • Endocrine system changes (damage to the thyroid, ovaries and testes, which can cause early menopause, infertility and weight gain)
  • Eye problems (e.g., dry eye syndrome, cataracts). Symptoms may include blurred or double vision, light sensitivity, and trouble seeing at night.
  • Fatigue. This is very common and may be caused by pain, stress, anemia and other factors.
  • Hearing loss
  • Heart problems (e.g., congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease). Symptoms may include shortness of breath, dizziness, swollen hands/feet and chest pain.
  • Joint changes (e.g., scar tissue, weakness, loss of motion in joints). Symptoms may include trouble opening your mouth wide and pain during certain movements.
  • Kidney and urinary problems
  • Lung problems/damage. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, wheezing, fever, dry cough, congestion and feeling tired.
  • Lymphedema, or swelling, heaviness or pain in the arms or legs
  • Mouth changes (e.g., dry mouth, cavities, or bone loss in the jaw)
  • Neuropathy, or numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
  • Secondary cancers
  • Speech or swallowing difficulties

Not all cancer survivors experience late effects. The late effects you’ll deal with depend on the type of cancer you had, your treatment regimen and other individual factors. Some go away with time while others are longer lasting.

Fortunately, advancements in cancer treatment, including more targeted radiation therapies and chemotherapies, and minimally invasive surgical procedures, have helped to reduce many of the treatment-related side effects that were once more common.

What can you do to manage late effects?

After cancer treatment ends, regular check-ups with your doctor are important. During these visits, let your doctor know if you have any new symptoms or changes to your health. In most cases, the earlier late effects are identified, the easier they are to treat.

Your doctor can talk with you about ways to manage late side effects. Sometimes medication and other interventions, like surgery or hormone replacement therapy, can help with symptoms. Rehabilitation therapy may help to decrease pain, increase strength and improve movement. A specialist (e.g., cardiologist, ophthalmologist, audiologist, dentist, etc.) can help with issues in specific areas of the body.

You can also do your part to manage late side effects by:

  • Not smoking or using other tobacco products
  • Eating a healthy plant-based diet including a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, lean meats, poultry, fish, and beans
  • Walking, jogging, or doing other weight-bearing exercises
  • Limiting how much alcohol you drink
  • Quitting smoking
  • Getting enough rest
  • Losing excess weight if you’re overweight or obese
  • Taking good care of your teeth and gums

Edward-Elmhurst Health has created a Cancer Survivorship Clinic to assist with the transition from active treatment to cancer survivor.

An Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), who has expertise in the issues survivors face as they complete treatment and return to everyday life, will partner with your oncologist and your primary care physician to help you prepare for the transition.

During your visit to the Clinic, your APRN will review any late effects specific to you and the treatments you received, and help develop a comprehensive survivorship plan for managing them.

Learn more about the Cancer Survivorship Clinic.

Related blogs:

What life looks like after cancer

Dealing with mood swings after treatment

6 tips to fight the fear of cancer returning

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