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Physical changes after cancer treatment

You may experience side effects from the disease or that linger after treatment. Some may be temporary, others might be permanent, and some could show up unexpectedly. Here are some common changes those battling cancer may experience:

Fatigue: Fatigue is the most common side effect experienced by patients during and after cancer treatment.

Dental problems: Chemotherapy and radiation treatments to the head and neck areas can damage tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay and loss. Dry mouth is also possible because salivary glands are susceptible to radiation damage.

Changes to the endocrine system: Hormone ablation therapy removes estrogen and testosterone from the body and is most commonly used on prostate and breast cancer patients who may experience the following issues:

  • Decreased sex drive
  • Memory loss
  • Anemia
  • Decrease in muscle mass
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Body hair loss

Incontinence: Removal of the prostate or bladder can lead to urinary incontinence, while treatment for colon, anal and rectal cancers may make it harder to control your bowels.

Infertility: Radiation to the abdominal area, certain chemotherapy drugs and abdominal cancer surgery can cause infertility in both men and women. If you are hoping to have children someday, eggs and sperm can be preserved before treatment.

Sexual dysfunction: Many cancer patients experience sexual side effects such as erectile dysfunction (ED) in men and sudden menopause or vaginal dryness in women.

Focus and memory problems: Many patients experience so-called “chemo brain” during and immediately following treatment, but chemotherapy isn’t the only culprit. Cognitive problems can be caused by radiation therapy, brain surgery, any number of medications or simply the stress related to dealing with cancer.

Organ damage: Certain types of cancer treatments can age or damage major organs. Long-term health problems and symptoms that may appear as you age include:

Heart failure: Shortness of breath, weakness, chest discomfort and rapid heartbeat

Lung damage: Problems breathing, coughing or pneumonia

Liver damage: Dark urine, pale stools, jaundice, yellowing of the eyes, abdominal swelling or pain or severe fatigue

Kidney problems: Decreased urine flow, bladder irritation, blood in the urine or a burning feeling while urinating

  • Lymphedema: If lymph nodes under the arm are damaged by radiation or surgically removed, lymphatic fluid can accumulate in the tissue, causing inflammation, swelling and limited movement.
  • Neuropathy: Radiation, surgery or chemotherapy can cause nerve damage that leads to a tingling or burning sensation in the hands and feet.
  • Osteoporosis: Bone loss is a common side effect for survivors of lymphoma, leukemia, breast and prostate cancers.
  • Pain: Managing chronic pain in cancer survivors may require a combination of medication, physical therapy and/or complementary therapies such as acupuncture. 

Hopefully, you won’t experience any of these long-term effects — some people do not. But if symptoms do occur, know that you’re not alone and your cancer care team is here to help.

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