Managing Late and Long-term Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Side effects related to cancer or cancer treatment that occur months or even years after you have completed your cancer treatments are considered “late side effects.” Side effects of cancer treatment that don’t go away after your treatment ends are known as “long-term side effects.” Working with your cancer-care team to manage late- and long-term side effects of cancer treatment are important to your continued recovery and quality of life.

Late and Long-term Side Effects Survivors May Experience

Once cancer treatment ends and you become a cancer survivor, you may not be entirely free from residual effects of your illness. Long after cancer treatment ends, sometimes years after treatment ends, you may experience cancer- or cancer-treatment-related side effects.

The specific late- and long-term side effects that you may experience as a cancer survivor will depend on:

  • The type and location of cancer you had
  • The type of cancer treatments you received including the dosages of medication or radiation that were given.
  • Your age and physical condition during treatment
  • Your family history
  • Any non-cancer-related health problems you have

Late- and long-term side effects can be physical or emotional and may include:

  • Anxiety, depression, and fear of recurrence
  • Fatigue
  • Secondary cancers such as skin, breast, or thyroid cancers
  • Infertility
  • Growth, development, and hormonal problems (especially among prepubescent cancer survivors)
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Heart problems such as abnormal heart rhythm, high blood pressure, heart muscle weakness, or coronary artery disease
  • Lung and breathing problems
  • Dental problems, such as dry mouth, tooth decay, and gum disease
  • Digestive problems, such as chronic heartburn, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems including dry eye and cataracts
  • Bone, joint, and tissue problems such as osteoporosis and joint pain

What Should You Talk to Your Doctor About?

Especially if you are a new cancer survivor, make sure to ask your oncologist about what long-term cancer treatment effects you are most likely to experience. Some may be very common for certain types of cancer treatment and they can advise you on what you might expect. In fact, if you haven’t already done so, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment to talk about what to keep an eye out for. Make sure to take notes or bring along a friend or relative to take notes for you.

Ask your cancer care team for a detailed list of all of the cancer treatments and dosages you received and keep this list in a safe place. If you develop late side effects months or years down the road, you can give this list to your doctors to help them diagnose and treat what is bothering you.

Other questions to ask your oncologist include:

  • Is there anything I can do to reduce the likelihood of developing these late side effects?
  • What warning signs should I watch out for, and when should I visit the doctor?
  • Can you explain the differences between possible cancer or cancer-treatment “side effects” to watch for versus cancer “symptoms” that might indicate my cancer may have returned?
  • Considering the cancer treatments I received, should I be monitored by any medical specialists (like an optometrist or cardiologist) to keep an eye out for late side effects?

Cancer Survivorship: A New Normal

Experiencing cancer is life-changing in many ways. Late- and long-term side effects may continue to affect you well into the future. Make sure to find out from your cancer care team what you might experience down the road. This way, you’ll be able to identify potential cancer treatment side effects quickly and contact your doctor promptly to have them checked out.