For many survivors, life doesn’t simply return to normal after treatment is over. The intensive interventions used to treat cancer often cause long-term physical side effects. While these symptoms can continue years after treatment, there are actions you and your health care team can take to minimize and manage long-term effects.
Cancer survivors are often at an increased risk of developing osteopenia (mild bone degeneration) or osteoporosis (severe bone loss). Proper nutrition and exercise are proven to protect your bones.
While cancer treatment can cause both men and women to develop hot flashes, the symptom is most common in women taking anti-estrogen therapy for breast cancer or men taking androgen deprivation therapy for prostate cancer.
Many chemotherapies or other cancer-related treatments, specifically breast cancer and prostate cancer therapies, have been shown to slow down metabolism and contribute to weight gain, even after treatment is complete. Other factors, such as immobility following surgery, fatigue and depression can contribute to weight gain.
Cancer survivors who received chemotherapy or radiation treatment are at risk for developing a recurrence or second cancer. While the risk is generally low, it varies depending on the type of cancer originally treated, ranging from 2 percent among lymphoma survivors to 30 percent among survivors of small cell lung cancer.
Survivors often report a change in cognitive function as a long-term effect of many cancer therapies, including chemotherapy (“chemo brain”), surgery and radiation. Studies show between 60 and 80 percent of cancer patients have cognitive symptoms — including memory loss, difficulty concentrating or trouble thinking clearly — with about 30 percent of survivors continuing to experience symptoms long term.
Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most common symptoms reported among survivors — studies show up to 50 percent of survivors experience persistent fatigue. Fatigue usually lessens when cancer treatment ends, but it’s normal for symptoms to last after treatment. At City of Hope, we use a multidisciplinary approach to help patients overcome cancer-related fatigue.
Cancer treatment, particularly the removal of lymph nodes, can cause lymphedema, a condition when an abnormal collection of fluid under the skin causes an extremity to swell. Lymphedema can be managed if caught early enough. City of Hope’s Occupational Therapy Department provides therapists who specialize in this treatment.
Cancer-related pain is common among survivors and is reported in nearly half of all cancer patients. But you don’t need to endure it; talk to your team about how pain caused by cancer diagnosis and treatment can be addressed.
Nerve damage caused by chemotherapy or surgery can lead to peripheral neuropathy, a condition common among cancer survivors. Symptoms often include numbness, tingling, burning or occasionally pain in your extremities. Talk with your survivorship care provider about the many treatments available to help with this condition.
Insomnia (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep) is especially common, affecting between 30 to 50 percent of survivors.Many cancer patients experience changes in their sleep cycle when going through cancer treatment, and continue to experience these changes as long-term survivors.Talk with your provider about strategies to improve your sleep.
Cancer treatment can affect cancer survivors’ fertility. Those who have undergone treatment are at higher risk for infertility, early onset of menopause and negative pregnancy outcomes, such as difficulty getting pregnant, birth defects, genetic risks and effects on the health of their offspring.
The effects on fertility depend on the type and stage of cancer, drugs given and cumulative dosages, radiation field, the extent of surgery, age, gender and genetic factors. There are many well-established fertility preservation and family-building alternatives available for cancer survivors following treatment.
Established fertility preservation options include:
- Sperm cryopreservation (sperm freezing)
- Oocyte cryopreservation (egg freezing)
- Embryo cryopreservation (embryo freezing)
Common family-building alternatives include:
- Embryo donation
- Egg donation
- Sperm donation