As a cancer survivor, you’re ready to move on with life after cancer. However, side effects from your disease or aggressive treatment methods may interfere with your quality of life. Some may be temporary, and others may last a lifetime. Learn more about the common side effects faced by cancer survivors like you, and how to manage them effectively.
Fatigue is the most common complaint of cancer survivors. Cancer-related fatigue can be mild or severe, temporary or long-lasting, but there are ways to feel less tired and more energetic.
Cancer Recurrence or Secondary Cancers
All cancer survivors live with the possibility that their cancer will come back or spread (metastasize). Some also may develop secondary cancers. Regular follow-up exams, cancer screenings, and reporting symptoms to your doctor can help detect new or spreading cancers as early as possible.
Dental and Oral Problems
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments, especially to the head and neck area, can increase the risk of long-term dental problems. These may include damage to the tooth enamel, gum disease, tooth decay or tooth loss. Mouth ulcers can be painful and make it difficult for you to eat, talk and swallow.
Xerostomia (dry mouth) is common in head and neck cancer survivors because salivary glands are susceptible to radiation damage.
Steroid drugs used to treat certain cancers may increase blood glucose levels in some patients who do not have diabetes. Although it's unclear if these patients will develop diabetes, they are at higher risk because their glucose levels may remain elevated after treatment ends.
Some cancer treatments remove estrogen and testosterone from the body to keep a tumor from growing. These treatments, known as hormone ablation therapy, are most commonly used on prostate and breast cancer patients, who may experience the following side effects:
- Decreased sex drive
- Memory loss
- Decreased muscle mass
- Weight gain
- Loss of body hair
Survivors of head and neck cancers who were treated with radiation therapy often suffer from hypothyroidism, which occurs when the damaged thyroid does not produce enough hormones. Symptoms include weight gain, constipation, dry skin and sensitivity to cold. Thyroid medication can manage these side effects.
Incontinence is the inability to control urination and bowel movements. Removal of the prostate or bladder increases the possibility of urinary incontinence. Treatment for colon, anal and rectal cancers may make it harder to control your bowels (fecal incontinence). Corrective surgery to repair or replace the anal sphincter may ease fecal incontinence. Simple exercises to strengthen the muscles in the pelvic floor can also help you regain control over bowel movements.
Radiation to the abdominal area may cause infertility in both sexes. Certain chemotherapy drugs can permanently damage the ovaries in women or the testes in men. Abdominal surgery for several types of cancer (particularly prostate, bladder, ovarian and uterine cancers) increase risk of infertility in both men and women. If you’re worried about being able to have children after cancer treatment, MD Anderson can help you preserve your eggs or sperm before treatment.
Learning & Memory Problems
Many cancer patients have problems with learning and memory during and immediately after treatment with certain chemotherapy drugs, a condition known as "chemobrain."
Lymphedema occurs when lymph nodes under the arm are damaged by radiation or surgically removed. Lymphatic fluid accumulates in the tissue, causing painful inflammation, swelling and limited movement.
Neuropathy, a tingling or burning sensation in the hands and feet due to nerve damage, can be caused by radiation, surgery or chemotherapies that contain taxanes, platinum, vincristine and thalidomide.
Certain types of cancer treatment, particularly chemotherapy drugs, can age or damage major organs, which can result in long-term health problems that appear as you age or have other health problems.
Heart failure: Symptoms include shortness of breath, feeling weak and tired after regular activity or while at rest, chest discomfort or feeling the heart beat fast.
Lung and airway damage: Some antibiotics, chemotherapy medicines or types of biotherapies can damage tissues in the lungs and bronchial tubes. Common symptoms of lung damage include problems breathing, coughing or pneumonia.
Liver damage: Symptoms may include dark urine, pale stools, yellowing of the eyes or skin, abdominal swelling or pain, flu-like symptoms or severe fatigue. Some chemotherapy drugs require regular blood tests to check liver function.
Kidneys: Symptoms of kidney damage include decreased urine flow, bladder irritation, blood in the urine, or a burning feeling while urinating.
Bone loss is a common side effect for survivors of lymphoma, leukemia, breast and prostate cancers. Osteoporosis can be caused by the cancer itself, cortisone-type drugs, treatment-induced menopause, cancer cells in the bone marrow and treatments that affect testosterone levels.
Pain can linger for years after cancer treatment, severely affecting quality of life. Managing chronic pain in cancer survivors may require a combination of drugs, physical therapy, support groups and/or complementary therapies.
Many cancer patients experience sexual side effects, particularly those with tumors in reproductive organs. Erectile dysfunction (ED) can occur in men, and women may suffer from sudden menopause or vaginal dryness.