Living with and beyond cancer

Other long-term physical effects

In addition to the long-term physical impacts already described, some people we spoke with mentioned being affected by less common long-term side effects or complications of treatment.
Some people who had radiotherapy said that their skin in the treated area was still dry, sore or tender five or more years afterwards. A man who had radiotherapy for breast cancer said that he therefore didn’t expose the affected skin on his chest to the sun. A man treated for lymphoma said that his hair had not grown back on the treated skin on his neck.
Graft versus host disease (GvHD) can occur after having a stem cell transplant from a donor and is caused by the donor’s immune system attacking the recipient’s body. It can affect various parts of the body but commonly the skin. A woman who had a stem cell transplant as treatment for leukaemia developed a skin reaction and 7 years on still gets bouts of eczema when stressed or tired that she attributes to the GvHD. Her mouth and gut lining were also inflamed by the chemotherapy and she still takes medication to counter stomach acidity. Other people also said they still suffered from sore gums or a dry mouth; the latter can be caused by chemotherapy damaging the salivary glands. Nails can also be damaged or fall off as a result of chemotherapy, and a woman who had been treated for lymphoma said that one of her toenails was growing back with a split in it.
Circulatory problems affected other people. A few said that blood vessels had broken down as a side effect of radiotherapy. A woman treated for lymphoma said that her veins that had been repeatedly used for insertion of needles and cannulae were badly damaged. Other people complained of swelling of feet, legs or ankles, or of cramp, and a man treated for testicular cancer said he had poor circulation in his extremities so that his fingers went white when handling cold objects. One man wondered whether his coronary artery disease was related to his earlier lymphoma treatment. People with certain types of cancer, such as acute myeloid leukaemia, or taking certain hormone therapies are at higher than normal risk of developing a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot).
Breathlessness was common among people who had survived five or more years after lung cancer treatment. This could either be due to having had part or the whole of a lung removed, damage from radiotherapy, or the effects of the condition itself. Breathlessness restricted the amount of activity that these people could do and meant they had to rest frequently. Most found using an inhaler helpful and some also did breathing exercises. A woman treated solely by chemotherapy said she had not been given any advice or exercises for coping with breathlessness.
Some chemotherapy drugs can damage kidney function. Usually the effects are mild and don’t cause symptoms, so people with kidney damage only need regular monitoring. However, very occasionally the problem can be severe. A woman whose ovarian cancer recurred after initial treatment had cisplatin chemotherapy administered directly into her abdominal cavity, which caused kidney failure; she now needs haemo-dialysis three times a week.
Loss of bone density is a natural part of ageing but certain cancer treatments can also have this effect, causing weakening of the bones (osteoporosis) that can lead to fractures. Fractures were the first sign of osteoporosis in some people we spoke with who had taken hormone therapy for breast or prostate cancer; they had since been given medication to try to strengthen their bones. A man treated for lymphoma says his bone loss was due to taking steroids as part of his treatment.
Diabetes was another unwanted outcome of cancer or its treatment for some people. Diabetes is a condition in which sugars are not metabolised properly by the body because the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or the insulin doesn’t work properly. A man who had part of his pancreas removed as treatment for pancreatic cancer later developed early signs of diabetes as a result and was controlling it through his diet.
Weight gain is a common side effect of steroid treatment, and several people we spoke to attributed their weight gain to their cancer treatment. Other long-term physical symptoms that people attributed to their cancer or its treatment included: eyesight problems, including cataracts that can occur after a stem cell transplant; underactive thyroid; hot sweats not associated with hormone therapy; forgetfulness persisting five years after having chemotherapy; lumps on the hands; and a sore arm but with no associated build-up of lymph fluid (lymphoedema) - a common complication of breast cancer treatment.

A few people also experienced unexpected and rare complications from their cancer treatment.  A woman with ovarian cancer who needed a tube inserting into her windpipe in an emergency had one of her vocal cords damaged by the procedure. She also needed a separate operation to clear a bowel blockage. A woman who had surgery to remove a colorectal cancer later needed several more operations on her abdomen to deal with a haemorrhage, an abscess and hernias. A woman who had radiotherapy for cervical cancer needed an operation six years later to drain fluid that had built up in her uterus.  

Last reviewed October 2018.

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