The Long-Term Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

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April 24, 2020
Long Term Cancer Side Effects

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation are designed to kill fast-growing cancer cells. These powerful drugs travel throughout the body and may affect healthy, normal fast-growing cells as well. The type of long-term side effects cancer survivors face and the severity differs between individuals. Some may experience minimal long-term effects, while others may experience moderate to severe long-term effects. 

There are many different types of cancer and many different types of treatment. This combined with the fact that everyone’s body responds differently makes the possibilities of long-term side effects from cancer treatment endless. Let’s take a look at the most common long-term side effects:

  • Side-effects from surgery
  • Dental and oral issues
  • Heart conditions
  • High blood pressure
  • Pulmonary conditions
  • Side-effects to the endocrine system
  • Impaired brain function/chemo brain
  • Hair loss
  • Secondary cancer
  • Decreased bone strength
  • Emotional problems

Long-Term Side Effects Related to Surgery

Long-term surgical side effects(1) will depend on the type of cancer you were diagnosed with and the location in the body you had surgery. The following are a few examples of side effects from surgery. Scarring at the surgical site is a common long-term effect as well as chronic pain. Lymphedema, which is painful swelling from fluid build-up is the result of having lymph nodes removed. Survivors who had a limb amputation may experience phantom pain. If your spleen was removed due to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, you might be at a higher risk for developing infections.

Dental and Oral Issues

Tissues in the mouth are among the fastest-growing tissues in the body. Since cancer treatments attack fast-growing tissues it can cause long-term negative dental and oral side-effects such as: 

  • Cavities
  • Tooth decay
  • Dry mouth
  • Gum disease
  • Loss of taste

It is important to see your dentist if you experience any oral issues after cancer treatment. 

Heart Conditions 

Chemotherapy and radiation cancer treatment to the chest increases the risk of long-term side effects on the heart. Congestive heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, and hardened and narrow arteries (coronary artery disease) are the most common side effects, although they may not appear for months or even years after cancer treatment is complete. There is also an increased risk of developing heart issues when taking certain medications as a part of your cancer treatment. 

High Blood Pressure 

Certain medications used as a part of cancer treatment can cause high blood pressure in patients. These include Bevacizumab, Sorafenib, and Sunitinib.(1) For many patients, blood pressure returns to normal once you are no longer taking the medication. However, for others, it is a long-term side effect that must be managed with medications, diet, exercise, or a combination of treatments to keep your blood pressure under control.

Pulmonary Conditions 

Those who received either chemo or radiation to the chest are more likely to experience damage to the lungs. Survivors who received both chemo and radiation are an even higher risk of long-term pulmonary side effects due to cancer treatment. Side-effects include:

  • A decrease in pulmonary function
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Inflammation and thickening of the lining of the lungs

Long-Term Side Effects to the Endocrine System

Cancer treatments may cause long-term side effects to the endocrine system due to the chemotherapy or radiation causing a change in the level of hormones for both men and women. For women, this could mean menopausal symptoms in which your body stops menstruating. For younger women, menstruation may come back at some point after cancer treatments are finished. This is not always the case.

For both men and women, the change in hormones due to treatment can cause infertility, changes in your sex drive, and hot flashes. 

Related reading: Fertility for Cancer Survivors

Impaired Brain Function

Chemotherapy and radiation can cause survivors to have long-term trouble with memory, processing information, and staying focused on tasks at hand. Those who received cancer treatment to the head are at a higher risk for developing long-term cognitive issues. This is commonly referred to as chemo brain. While chemo brain is usually worse during treatment, it is known to last after treatment is completed-sometimes for a few years.  


Cancer treatment is powerful and can not only leave the patient feeling tired during treatment but for months and years afterward. This is one of the most common long-term side effects experienced by cancer survivors. 

Long-Term Bone Issues

Certain cancer treatments may cause thinning of the bones, which is also called osteoporosis. Survivors may also experience joint pain as well. These side-effects can be made worse if the individual is not physically active.  

Hair Loss

Hair loss is a common side-effect of cancer treatment. For most people, their hair begins to grow back after treatment. For others, it may not grow back, it may be thinner, and it may come back a completely different color or texture.

Related reading: To Wig or Not to Wig?

Secondary Cancer

Secondary cancers, although not common do happen. It is important to understand that a secondary cancer is not a recurrence of the original type of cancer. It is an altogether different and unrelated cancer that occurs in a different part of the body. For instance, let’s say you successfully completed breast cancer treatment and years down the road are diagnosed with colon cancer. Colon cancer is a secondary cancer. 

Certain chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer have the potential to increase the chances that an individual will develop a secondary cancer down the road. The younger an individual is when they undergo cancer treatment, the higher the risk of developing a secondary cancer later in life. 

Emotional Difficulties

It is very common that cancer survivors experience a range of emotions from relieved and happy to sad, angry, depressed, helpless, and everything in between. From the moment you are diagnosed to when you receive your last treatment and beyond is a roller coaster of emotion for both the survivor and their families. Talking with someone can help survivors work through their emotional difficulties. 

Managing Long-Term Side Effects Due to Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatment takes a toll on the mind and body, that is not a secret. It stands to reason that it takes time to begin feeling like yourself again. Arizona Oncology understands that the journey does not end when treatment ends. There are both the physical and emotional side-effects of being faced with and surviving a life-threatening disease. You do not have to go it alone. Our staff offers supportive care to help you manage your long term side effects and adjust to a new normal in life! 

Continue reading about Cancer Treatment Tips and Side Effect Management.

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