The number of cancer survivors in the United States is expected to reach 22.2 million by 2030. Based on data collected from 2015 to 2017, approximately 39.5% of people will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point during their lifetime. Thanks to advanced treatment options, many cancer survivors now have the same life expectancy as those without a history of cancer.
Cancer survivors have every right to celebrate being cancer-free, but they could be facing severe health issues for the rest of their lives due to their treatment. Long-term side effects from chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and immunotherapy vary widely depending on what type of cancer you had and how long you were treated.
Some people may experience adverse side effects for a few weeks or months, while others may have symptoms that last years.
This blog post will discuss the long-term effects of various cancer therapies and offer advice on how cancer survivors can overcome them.
Surgery Side Effects
Surgery is a valid treatment option for solid tumors that are contained in a single area. It is used for removing entire tumors, debulking a tumor (removing a part of a tumor so that other treatment options could provide better results), or easing cancer symptoms (pain or pressure). Surgery alone cannot be used for curing leukemia or cancers that have extensively spread.
Long-term side effects of cancer surgery depend on the type of surgery performed, the stage of cancer, and the methods used in the surgery.
Surgeries like a hysterectomy or prostate removal could lead to urinary incontinence (inability to control when urine is released; urinary dysfunction), sexual dysfunction (such as erectile dysfunction), and reduced fertility.
Patients who have undergone surgery for colon cancer may require a colostomy (an opening in their large intestine or colon that replaces the function of their anus).
Some might lose an entire or partial limb due to cancer surgery. Getting used to living with a disability is not an easy task. These side effects of surgery can be better handled with healthy habits, physical therapy, and medical care.
A potential long-term effect from surgery may also be psychological; some people can take months before overcoming these emotional effects and are comfortable in their own skin again.
Chemotherapy Side Effects
Chemotherapy is a treatment option that includes medications designed to fight cancer cells in the body. The goal of chemotherapy treatment can be one of these three:
- Cure – providing a complete elimination of cancer cells.
- Control – reducing the size or preventing the spread of cancer; managing cancer similarly to managing a chronic illness.
- Palliation – reducing the symptoms and effects of cancer without eliminating it or providing a cure; improving patients’ quality of life with terminal cancers.
Even those who don’t have a history of cancer know the most common side effects of chemo treatment: nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and hair loss. These are all primarily short-term side effects.
The late effects of chemo are not as well known. They include:
- Cognitive Difficulties
Often referred to as “chemo brain” or “chemo fog,” cognitive dysfunction from chemotherapy includes multitasking, memory, and attention span problems. In some cases, chemo brain symptoms can last for years.
- Hearing Problems
Chemotherapy drugs such as cisplatin and carboplatin might cause permanent hearing issues. According to one study, cisplatin can cause tinnitus by remaining in the inner ear even after treatment.
- Blood Diseases
Chemotherapy triggers a shortage of healthy blood cells which can cause anemia, fatigue, susceptibility to infections, and increased risk of leukemia or myelodysplasia.
- Heart Damage
The risk of heart function problems after receiving chemotherapy is greater for people who are over 65. Some chemo drugs can lead to late side effects such as arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, pericarditis, and more.
Radiation Side Effects
Radiation therapy relies on high-energy waves or particles (protons, electron beams, gamma rays, or x-rays) that damage or kill cancer cells.
Radiation may cause a slightly increased risk of secondary cancer. This treatment option works by damaging the DNA inside cells. Cancer cells are the primary target, but normal cells can be affected as well. Most normal body cells recover from radiation, but some might become cancerous later on.
If it is used for breast cancer treatment, it is essential to mention that radiation could lead to changes in the skin of the breast. It could become more sensitive, firmer, or thicker than it was before treatment. Sometimes even the breast size might change due to the build-up of fluids or the development of scar tissue.
Radiation can also decrease fertility, especially in females, and problems with adrenal or thyroid glands, and permanent hair loss. The side effects it can cause depend on the area of the body where the treatment is localized and the number of doses of radiation the patient receives.
Immunotherapy Side Effects
Immunotherapy is generally defined as a treatment that affects a patient’s immune system. It is intended to stop cancer cells from growing and spreading by boosting the immune system’s ability to recognize them as a threat, attack them, and eliminate them. This treatment doesn’t work equally well on all types of cancer. It can also be used on its own or in combination with other therapies.
Unlike chemotherapy, immunotherapy typically has a lower risk of harming healthy cells. That is why the side effects of chemo and immunotherapy are pretty different.
Some monoclonal antibodies used in immunotherapy (mAbs or Moabs) cause long-term side effects in the body. For example, Bevacizumab can lead to increased blood pressure, blood clots, and kidney damage. It might cause damage to small blood vessels in the hands and feet, leading to the development of the hand-foot syndrome. HFS can be painful and even limit a patient’s mobility and ability to perform their normal daily activities.
Cytokines that boost the anti-cancer activity of the body’s immune system are known to cause rare long-term nerve damage, including Guillain-Barré syndrome.
How to Handle Long-Term Side Effects
The most critical step in learning how to cope with the long-term side effects of treatment is to be informed. Talk to your cancer care team about what you can expect in the long run and how you can manage it.
Research on cancer treatment and its long-term side effects are always ongoing, but there are some ways to avoid or better cope with the issues:
- Try to avoid smoking
- Stay hydrated so that kidneys stay healthy
- Eat a diet high in protein and low in sugar to maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise to help with bone density (improve bone health) and reduce fatigue
- Take care of your mental health by talking to a mental health professional if needed
- Find someone close to you who will listen and support you as you get used to your new life after cancer
Long-term side effects of cancer treatment can cause survivors to have a lower quality of life. What side effects they might experience depends on the type of treatment they received, how long the cancer was present in their body, and the survivor’s overall health.
Some long-term consequences include being more susceptible to infection, increased risk for developing certain cancer types again in the future, and experiencing chronic pain or disability. These treatments can contribute to early menopausal symptoms, infertility, and sexual dysfunction. Some treatment options can also cause cancer survivors to experience psychological side effects.
Long-term side effects can be managed with lifestyle changes, but mental health issues need to be addressed. It would be best if you turned to your cancer care team for support.
As a cancer survivor, it is imperative to know the risks of your treatment to help you make informed decisions about any future treatments or preventative measures.
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