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Nurse talking to a patient
Nurse talking to a patient

Physical Effects of Cancer

Even if you’re ready to move on with your life after cancer, side effects from the disease or treatments may slow you down. It’s common for these issues to appear months or even years later.

Mays Cancer Center, home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer, offers robust survivorship services that help you feel better. We maintain lasting relationships with survivors enabling us to deliver timely care for the long-term physical effects of cancer. You have access to a broad range of therapies for common and complex symptoms.

Long-term effects of cancer and cancer treatment

The cancer survivorship team at Mays Cancer Center is here for you with personalized recommendations for feeling better. We may recommend medications, additional treatments or oncology rehabilitation.

Long-term physical effects of cancer vary depending on the patient, type of cancer, and treatment: 

Side effects

  • Cognitive issues: Chemotherapy drugs can have a lasting impact on brain functioning. You may have problems with memory, finding the right words or concentrating. Being physically active and treating fatigue and sleep problems may lessen these symptoms. Planners, timer reminders, and small recording devices may help
  • Dental and mouth issues: Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may damage tooth enamel, cause tooth decay or loss and gum disease. Painful mouth ulcers may develop, making eating, talking, and swallowing difficult. Following up with your dentist twice a year can prevent some of these issues.
  • Fatigue (unusual tiredness): Fatigue related to cancer can be mild or severe, temporary or long-lasting and is often worsened by other underlying factors such as nutrition and sleep. While it is the most common complaint of cancer survivors, there are ways to feel less tired. Learn more about managing fatigue (Spanish).
  • Endocrine changes: Head and neck radiation, as well as some prostate and breast cancer treatments lower hormone levels to halt cancer cell growth. But reduced hormone levels can cause low sex drive, memory loss, depression, weight gain and muscle weakness. 
  • Neuropathy: Nerve damage can occur after many types of cancer treatment, including radiation therapy, surgery and certain chemotherapy drugs. You may experience tingling, burning or numbness in your hands or feet. There can also be balance issues, jaw pain, stomach pain and hearing loss. Medications are available to reverse neuropathy and physical therapy may enable you to maintain normal function.
  • Pain: Cancer survivors often experience pain, which can linger for years. There are many options to help you feel better, including medications, physical therapy and complementary therapies such as massage.

New medical issues due to cancer or cancer treatment

  • Diabetes: Steroids can increase blood sugar levels even if you don’t have diabetes. Maintaining a healthy diet and keeping physically active may lower this risk.  
  • Hypothyroidism: Radiation therapy for head and neck cancer can limit the thyroid gland’s ability to produce hormones. You may experience weight gain, constipation, dry skin, and a sensitivity to cold. Medication can help manage hypothyroidism and its side effects. 
  • Incontinence: Prostate or bladder cancer and radiation to the pelvic area can impact bladder control leading to accidents and leaks. There may be fecal incontinence after colon, anal or rectal cancer treatment. Learn more about pelvic floor exercises.
  • Fertility issues: Radiation or surgery to the abdomen and certain chemotherapy drugs can make it challenging to conceive. Undergoing fertility preservation before treatment improves your chances. But you may still have options after treatment is complete.
  • Lymphedema: Fluid buildups in the extremities can occur when cancer or cancer treatments damage the vessels that transport lymph throughout the body. You face a greater risk for lymphedema in the first three years after treatment. Explore lymphedema therapy.
  • Osteoporosis: Bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy, radiation, and steroid treatments can all affect hormone and mineral levels in the body leading to bone loss. A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D combined with physical activity can help.
  • Sexual dysfunction: Cancer treatment can cause a variety of sexual changes in both men and women ranging from a loss of desire to erection problems and pain with sexual activity. Talk to your provider to discuss options that are right for your specific needs.

Organ damage

  • Heart Failure: Certain chemotherapy drugs can increase your risk of heart failure. Maintaining a healthy weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels can lower this risk. Our cardio-oncology program is one of the few programs in South Texas whose team includes a board-certified cardio-oncologist specializing in preventing and managing these conditions.
  • Liver and kidney damage: Certain chemotherapy drugs strain the liver or kidneys leading to organ damage. We may recommend regular blood and urine tests to monitor functioning. 
  • Lung and airway damage:  Some chemotherapy and antibiotic medications, types of biotherapies, and infections due to a lowered immune system can damage the tissues of the lungs. You may experience difficulty breathing, coughing and lung infections (pneumonia).

Secondary cancers and cancer recurrence

With any cancer, it’s possible for it to come back after treatment. It can also spread to other areas of the body. Following our cancer screening and prevention recommendations can help us detect the early signs of new cancers, so you receive timely care.