Living with and beyond cancer

Nerve damage

Nerve damage caused by cancer drugs

Nerve damage can occur in people with cancer as a side effect of certain chemotherapy drugs. The most common type of nerve damage caused by chemotherapy is to the peripheral nerves that carry signals from the body to the brain. This ‘peripheral neuropathy’ occurs in some people who are prescribed certain anti-cancer drugs, such as the vinca alkaloids (including vincristine (Oncovin)), the platinum based drugs (cisplatin, oxaliplatin (Eloxatin) and carboplatin (Paraplatin)), and the taxanes (docetaxel (Taxotere) and paclitaxel (Taxol)). It is most likely to affect the hands, feet and lower legs. People we spoke to used different terms to describe the sensations they still experienced in these areas, many years after their treatment had finished. Some said it was like a tingling, some a numbness, others a burning sensation or a feeling of coldness.
Once nerve damage has occurred it cannot be reversed, but stopping the treatment that is causing the damage can prevent further damage being done. Some people may find the symptoms less troubling over time as they adapt to them.
People having treatments that can cause nerve damage should be told that this is a possible outcome and be regularly monitored to detect problems early. However, some people we spoke to didn’t recall being warned in advance that nerve damage could occur or persist after treatment finishes.
Peripheral neuropathy can also affect the ears, causing hearing loss or balance difficulties. A woman who had cisplatin chemotherapy for ovarian cancer said she hadn’t been warned about possible hearing loss but noticed it after the first treatment. She can no longer hear birdsong or alarm signals. A woman who had chemotherapy for lymphoma said, “My sense of balance isn’t good; I wouldn’t care to ride a bicycle again, and I walk like a drunk even when sober”. 
Nerve damage caused by cancer surgery

Nerve damage can also occasionally occur as a complication of surgery. A woman who had a hysterectomy for cervical cancer still has numbness around the scar and down her right leg five years later. Sixteen years after having a testicle removed because of cancer one man still has a bit of numbness near the operation site. A woman who had surgery for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma experiences debilitating nerve damage.

Last reviewed October 2018.

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