Physical Changes After Cancer Treatment

What to expect and how to cope

Recovery from cancer treatment is a long and arduous journey. After treatment, you might be cancer-free, but the treatment could have lasting implications on your body. What you experience with your body may be related to the type of cancer you had and the treatment you received. 

You might still be coping with the after-effects of the cancer treatment on your body. Therefore, it will be helpful to give your body time to adjust while being mindful of changes. Keep in mind that no two people experience cancer the exact same way; your experience with cancer and aftercare might differ from that of someone else.

Possible Side Effects of Treatment

Side effects are problems that occur when treatment affects healthy tissues or organs. Some side effects of cancer treatment can manifest months or even years later. They are specific to certain types of treatments and the dosage received.

 Some of these physical changes can be tackled and controlled, especially with prompt medical intervention. Here are some physical changes you can expect after completing your cancer treatment

Bone Loss

In some cases, bones can lose their density, become thinner or more brittle due to chemotherapy, steroids, hormonal therapy, or radiation therapy. After radiation therapy, bone loss is seen only in the part of the body that was treated.

Brain Changes

There might be some adverse effects on your brain due to chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy such as memory loss, lack of concentration, personality changes, and movement problems. 

Radiation to the brain can cause radiation necrosis, a condition in which an area of dead tissue forms at the site of the brain tumour. It can cause movement problems, problems concentrating, slow processing of information and headaches.

Changes to the Endocrine System

Radiation to the head and neck and certain cancer drugs can damage parts of the endocrine system. Some parts of the endocrine system may be more susceptible to damage – these include the thyroid glands, ovaries, and testes. Damage to these organs can cause early menopause, infertility, under-active thyroid and weight gain.

Eye Problems

Cancer treatments can increase the risk of cataracts, a condition in which the lens of the eye becomes cloudy. It can cause blurred or double vision, sensitivity to light and disrupted night vision. Some chemotherapy drugs can also cause dry eye syndrome, a condition which affects tear ducts and decreases their ability to produce tears.

Hearing Loss

Treatments with certain chemotherapy drugs and high doses of radiation to the brain can cause hearing loss.

Heart Problems

Radiation therapy to the chest and some cancer drugs may cause heart problems. The side effects may include

  • A weakening of the heart muscles, which is known as congestive heart failure. It can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, and swollen hands or feet.
  • Coronary artery disease, which occurs when the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart become narrow. This condition can cause chest pain or shortness of breath. This problem is more common in patients who have received high doses of radiation therapy to the chest.
Joint Changes

Some patients may experience a loss of motion in joints such as shoulders, knees, hips or the jaw. These are side effects due to the build-up of scar tissue or bone loss caused by radiation, chemotherapy and steroids. After radiation therapy, this loss of motion is seen only in the part of the body that was treated.

Lung Problems

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments to the chest may damage the lungs. Lung damage can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, fever, dry cough, congestion and exhaustion.

Lymphedema

This is a condition in which the lymph fluid builds up in the tissues and doesn’t drain as it should, causing swelling. Survivors who have been treated for cancers affecting the lymph nodes have a higher tendency to develop lymphedema.

Mouth Changes

Radiation therapy involving the head or neck and some chemotherapy drugs can cause some side effects in the mouth, including dry mouth, cavities, or bone loss in the jaw.

Second Primary Cancers

Cancer treatment can sometimes lead to new cancers. These cancers are known as second primary cancers and are quite rare.

If you experience any of the changes and symptoms listed above, make an appointment with your doctor for prompt evaluation.

Over time, you will learn to adjust to these changes and keep moving forward with positivity and hope. Many patients also find that trying to stay active can help cope with the anxiety and stress of adjusting to these physical changes. Exercise may help you feel stronger, more relaxed, and give you a new sense of purpose. Other coping mechanisms could include reading, art therapy, music, volunteering for a cause, or doing anything which makes you feel better. Maintaining your physical well-being is another critical aspect of your cancer care journey. You can read more about focusing on your physical wellbeing and effective mechanisms to cope, here. Read more

Staying vigilant after treatment

It is perfectly normal to be worried that your cancer will come back after you’ve completed your treatment. Certain types of cancer have a higher risk of recurrence. It is important to have an open discussion with members of your clinical team to discuss your specific type of cancer and be aware of the risk of recurrence.

It is also important to be vigilant. Perform frequent self-examinations and schedule regular follow-up scans and check-ups with your clinician. Read more

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