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Overcoming cancer is a great feat. But the effects of treatment and recovery can often linger for a long time afterward. Treatment itself can lead to other physical problems, such as causing chemical imbalances or leaving the immune system susceptible to other illnesses.
Whichever type of treatment a survivor has undergone – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination – each of these treatments can create additional problems. However, certain physical problems can also appear with any kind of cancer treatment. Knowing what those potential problems are can help survivors and their loved ones deal with them during the recovery process.
Galy Vee, a survivor of peritoneal mesothelioma, says it’s important not to wait until symptoms become so bad that they develop into worse problems. “My last operation was supposed to be small,” Galy told the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. “I waited till it became an emergency. It was supposed to be an overnight one. It became a 4-week stay in hospital and a harsh few months after this.”
Regardless of what type of therapy a cancer survivor has undergone, certain physical issues can manifest during treatment or after it. These after effects may subside on their own, but survivors and their loved ones should be on the lookout for any persistent issues and contact their doctors if problems worsen or become unbearable.
Fatigue: One of the most common side effects of cancer treatment is fatigue, which can last a long time – and in some patients may continue for the rest of their lives. This fatigue is a byproduct of both the cancer itself and the aggressive measures taken to combat it. Fatigue will cause survivors to feel tired or exhausted all or most of the time, and can vary depending on the type and duration of the treatments being administered.
Pneumonitis: Pneumonitis is a serious condition that arises frequently after multiple forms of cancer treatment, including radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Caused by inflammation, the symptoms of pneumonitis can look and feel similar to other post-treatment problems, especially in cancers of the chest (e.g., lung cancer, breast cancer, mesothelioma, etc.). These symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, fever, and chest pains. The symptoms may not show up right away, and in some cases may not appear for up to six months after treatment has stopped. Depending on the cause, treatment for pneumonitis may include targeted drugs or temporary discontinuation of the cancer therapy.
Other systemic problems: Cancer treatments can lead to other systemic problems, such as heart-related issues (congestive heart failure, coronary disease, arrhythmia, etc.), hypertension (high blood pressure), osteoporosis, or hormonal imbalances. These problems are likely to be checked by doctors during ongoing follow-up appointments after treatment.
There are three general categories of surgery related to cancer: curative, palliative, and exploratory. Each type of surgery presents its own risks and potential side effects, which can impact recovery and quality of life for survivors. Some of these effects are short term, while others may persist for a long time.
General recovery: No matter what type of surgery, there is always going to be some period of time that the body will take to heal from any incisions (cuts). The size of the incision will often determine the length of time required to heal the wound. During this time, it is important to move carefully so as not to reopen the wound or tear out stitches. Furthermore, those who are in poor general health may require longer periods of time.
Infection: One big concern after any type of surgery is infection. Especially when combined with chemotherapy, which can drastically impair the body’s immune system, infection can be a major cause of complications after a surgical resection of a tumor. This can lead to pain, swelling, and drainage. Often, antibiotics will be prescribed after surgery to help prevent or minimize swelling; it’s important to take the entire prescription as directed to make sure infection does not cause further issues.
Postoperative pneumonia: The development of pneumonia after major lung surgery can be an issue for patients with mesothelioma or other types of cancer that affect the lungs. According to at least one study, up to 25 percent of patients who have all or part of a lung surgically removed may develop pneumonia after the operation.
Lymphedema: If lymph nodes are removed as part of the surgical treatment for cancer, survivors may develop lymphedema. This condition causes lymph fluid to accumulate, and may lead to swelling and pain. Depending on severity, location, and other factors, there are a number of potential treatments for lymphedema, including exercise, physical therapy, massage, draining, and medication.
Radiation treatment itself is not painful, but there are side effects following treatment that can cause discomfort, pain, or even additional problems for survivors in the long term. These will vary in their severity, and not everyone will experience them all.
Skin problems: One common after effect that cancer patients deal with is damage to the skin where the radiation was applied. This damage can appear and feel much like a sunburn, as it causes the skin to dry out and may become itchy. Severe occurrences can cause the skin to blister or peel. In most cases, the skin problems caused by radiation will go away within a few weeks after treatment.
Chest problems: For those who have radiation for lung-related cancers and other cancers in the chest, common problems can include difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, and stiffness or soreness in specific areas, such as the shoulders or nipples. Some of these symptoms may seem similar to pneumonitis (described above), so talking with a doctor is recommended if any of these symptoms occur.
Other cancers: Radiation is itself a carcinogen, and while radiation therapy is targeted specifically to the location(s) where tumors occur, damage to nearby tissue can sometimes lead to the development of additional tumors or other types of cancer. Generally, the risk of developing additional cancers from radiation therapy is extremely small, but it can be deadly when it occurs, especially if the survivor is already weakened from their first cancer and its treatment.
There are a lot of different chemotherapy drugs out there, and each one has its own side effects and problems. In addition to the physical issues caused by all forms of cancer treatment, there are some general long-term effects that can be caused by chemotherapy.
Hair loss: One of the most well known effects of chemotherapy is hair loss, and approximately 65 percent of patients who undergo the treatment experience loss of hair. The amount of hair loss experienced depends on the type of chemotherapy drug used. Many people consider the loss of their hair as an extremely traumatic aspect of chemotherapy. Fortunately, hair usually grows back within a few months, though it may initially have a different color or texture than normal hair.
Chemo brain: People who go through chemotherapy can often develop cognitive problems such as memory loss, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, and general fogginess. The exact cause of “chemo brain” (also called “cancer brain”) are not entirely clear, but may symptoms may be exacerbated by fatigue, stress or anxiety, age, or other medications used to treat the side effects of chemotherapy. Survivors can experience chemo brain for a very long time after their final treatments, sometimes as long as two years or more.
Being aware of the long-term effects of cancer treatment allows survivors to be prepared for them, which can reduce fear, stress, and anxiety, and may help lessen the effects of some of these problems. Many are concerned that what they are experiencing is as a result of the cancer, and this creates fear. Caregivers and others on the support team should also be aware of the potential side effects of the treatments, so they can help the survivor deal with them.
Just as having a plan to deal with the cancer treatments as one is going through them is important, so is the aftercare of the treatments. Having a plan in place will really help with the recovery process, and reduce the discomfort of these as well as the anxiety.