Dealing with physical effects after cancer treatment
After treatment you may still have some physical effects to cope with. How quickly things improve will depend on the treatment you’ve had and also on your age and general health.
You may find that you recover quite quickly and get back to doing the things you did before. But sometimes people have physical effects that take longer to improve or that are permanent. If this is the case for you, it’s important to pace yourself and give yourself time to adjust.
If your body changes or physical effects are mild, the following information may not be relevant for you. But in this section we’ve listed some of the physical effects you may experience as a result of cancer treatment.
If your appearance is in any way changed as a result of cancer or its treatment, it can take time to adjust. For example, you may have had:
a part of your body removed, such as a breast or a limb
an operation that results in an artificial opening (stoma), such as a colostomy, ileostomy or tracheostomy
a change to the way your body works
a change to how you feel about the way your body looks.
If you’ve had any kind of body change, it’s important to get support. You may need practical help, for example learning how to cope with a stoma or deal with prosthetics (such as a false breast or limb). Specialists are available who can offer this support.
If you have a partner, it’s natural to be concerned about their reaction to the changes to your body. You may worry that they’ll react badly, and this might make you want to hide parts of your body from them. However, your partner may not have a problem with your changed appearance and may be very supportive in helping you to adjust. Try to talk as openly as you can about it.
Coming to terms with a changed appearance or body function can be one of the hardest challenges after cancer treatment. But many people find that, after time, they begin to adjust to the new situation. It can help to know about the different organisations that offer support. Your doctor or nurse, or our cancer support specialists, can also give you more information. Sometimes expert help from a psychologist or a counsellor can help - your doctor can arrange this for you.
You may find it useful to read our section about coping with body changes.
Feeling very tired (fatigue)
Back to top
Fatigue is a general feeling of extreme tiredness. Having a good night’s sleep doesn’t usually help. It can affect your everyday life, meaning that even simple tasks can feel exhausting and that it’s difficult to concentrate on anything.
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, biological therapies and hormonal therapies can all cause fatigue. Sometimes, other side effects of the treatment can lead to fatigue – for example if you’re not eating enough because of a sore mouth or if your treatment is causing anaemia.
Our section about coping with fatigue has more useful tips.
Lymphoedema is swelling that develops because of a build-up of a fluid called lymph in the body’s tissues. It usually affects an arm or leg, but can sometimes also affect other parts of the body. It can develop if lymph nodes (sometimes called glands) have been removed by surgery, damaged by radiotherapy, or if a cancer is blocking them.
Lymphoedema can be reduced and the swelling can often be kept to a minimum, particularly when it’s diagnosed early. But it’s a condition that never goes away because the causes can’t be reversed.
Our section about lymphoedema talks about ways of reducing the risk of developing the condition, and has information on how to cope with it.
Late effects of radiotherapy
Back to top
Usually, the side effects of radiotherapy gradually settle down after treatment is over. But some people are left with long-term side effects. For example, radiotherapy to the head and neck area may cause a dry mouth. You can read more about this in our information about coping with a dry mouth.
Radiotherapy to the pelvis (lower tummy) can sometimes cause problems such as diarrhoea or having to pass urine more often. It may also cause sexual effects or infertility.
You can read more about the long-term effects of radiotherapy to the pelvic area, and ways of coping with these effects, in our sections on pelvic radiotherapy in men and pelvic radiotherapy in women.
Changes to your sex life
Back to top
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and hormonal therapies can all have an effect on your sex life.
Cancer treatment can affect your sex life in many different ways. Both men and women may find that their feelings about themselves and how they look affect their attitude to sex.
For example, some surgery can affect how you look, which may affect your confidence. You might find that pain or fatigue leave you with a lowered sex drive. Some treatments will affect how your body functions (for example, women may find their vagina becomes drier or narrower, or men may be unable to get or maintain an erection). These side effects may affect your physical ability to have sex.
You can read more detailed information about coping with body changes and other sexual problems in our section about sexuality and cancer.
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, biological therapies and hormonal therapies can all affect fertility.
Being told that you have cancer and that treatment may make you infertile can be very difficult to come to terms with. The prospect of losing your fertility can be overwhelming, no matter whether or not you already have children or whether you have considered having them before.
Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you about the risk of infertility before your treatment starts. It may also be helpful to discuss whether there’s anything that can be done to reduce the effects of treatment on your fertility.
In men, cancer treatments can stop the production of sperm, affect the production of testosterone, or damage the nerves or blood vessels in the pelvic area.
In women, some treatments can stop hormone production (causing periods to stop temporarily), while other treatments can cause an early menopause.
In some cases, effects on fertility will be temporary, but in others they will be permanent.
You can read more about infertility for men and women in our section on cancer treatment and fertility.
For women, treatment may have brought on an early menopause, or you may be having hormonal treatment that causes menopausal symptoms.
Some of the physical effects of the menopause are hot flushes, vaginal dryness and lowered sex drive (libido). Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you more information on how menopausal symptoms can be managed. Your doctor may be able to prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT), depending on the type of cancer you had.
Hormonal therapy (ongoing side effects)
Back to top
If you have breast cancer and are having hormonal therapy, you may have side effects similar to menopausal symptoms. You can read more about coping with these in our section on breast cancer and menopausal symptoms.
Men with prostate cancer who are having hormonal therapy may have side effects such as hot flushes. You can read helpful tips on coping with these in our section on prostate cancer and hormonal symptoms.
In both men and women, some hormonal therapies when used over a long time may increase the risk of bone thinning (osteoporosis). Exercise such as walking reduces your risk of osteoporosis and has other health benefits too. If you’re concerned about bone problems, you could read our information on bone health.
You may have lost or gained weight as a result of your cancer treatment. If you’ve had surgery to the stomach or bowel, you may have to make changes to your diet. Treatment to the head and neck area can also cause changes to the way you eat. If you’re having eating difficulties, ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian for advice.
We have information on coping with eating difficulties, specific eating problems and many other aspects of diet and cancer.
Occasionally cancer treatments can cause pain. Surgery or chemotherapy can damage the nerves, resulting in pain that sometimes takes months to get better. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have any pain or discomfort. Pain can be controlled using drugs prescribed by your doctor. Some people also find that complementary therapies such as relaxation or acupuncture can help.
You can read more about these in our sections on controlling cancer pain and cancer and complementary therapies.
Some treatments (usually certain chemotherapy drugs) can damage the nerves. This can cause changes in sensation, such as a burning feeling, pins and needles, and muscle weakness. This is known as peripheral neuropathy. It often gradually improves when treatment is over, but for a small number of people it can be permanent.
Let your doctor know about any symptoms or ongoing side effects you’re having. There are different ways they can be helped.
Some of the symptoms or effects mentioned here may not be related to cancer but to other medical conditions. Always tell your doctor about new symptoms that you’re having or anything that’s unusual for you.