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.
After a cancer diagnosis, many patients wait anxiously to hear the words “no evidence of disease.” But as Kimberly Hill has learned, the start of this new chapter – life after cancer – is where the real journey begins.
Kimberly, now 47, thought the hardest part of her lymphocyte predominate Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis was behind her when she learned she showed no evidence of disease in May 2015.
“I think I had unrealistic expectations that this journey was over,” says Kimberly of learning she had no evidence of disease.
Moving forward despite cancer pain
The Knoxville, Tennessee, resident copes with these changes in the best way she knows how, which is to continue moving forward despite the pain.
“I can’t take pain medication because I have an active lifestyle,” says Kimberly. “Pain medications slow me down and add to the mental fogginess that I’m already dealing with.”
She traded her stilettos for Converse because of pain and inflammation that won’t go away. Walking across campus at the University of Tennessee where she works and keeping up with her busy 9-year-old daughter require a lot of time on her feet.
Coping with chemobrain
The toughest adjustment has been managing memory problems. Kimberly admits she didn’t think chemobrain was real – until she experienced symptoms like leaving her keys in the door, not turning off the stove and even forgetting to pick up her daughter from school. Her inability to recall information has made completing her Ph.D. and serving as an adjunct professor especially difficult.
Yet, she’s found ways to lessen the cognitive challenges.
“I use sticky notes. I carry a note pad around and use the record feature on my phone. I set reminders -- and reminders to set reminders,” she jokes.
A constant fear of recurrence
Perhaps the biggest adjustment has been Kimberly’s constant fear of her cancer returning.
“It’s a nagging feeling that’s always there. Even in your joy. Even when you have happiness,” says the mother of three. “Every ache, every pain is always accompanied by ‘What if?’”
Being mindful is key
Kimberly utilizes services at MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center to help with some of these side effects. She credits the center for treating the whole person, by first acknowledging that her symptoms are real, and then providing meditations and memory exercises to help.
“I practice mindfulness and self-care. I can’t help what was. I can’t help a lot of what will be. But I can be very present in what’s now,” she says.
She’s learning how to be patient and adjust to her new way of life, one step at a time. Despite all she’s been through, Kimberly is grateful for the most precious gift of time.
“Try to appreciate all of the good things. You can get so bogged down on the negatives you experience that you forget to be thankful that you’re here to experience them.”
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