Some cancer treatments can damage your endocrine glands. These glands produce hormones that regulate the way your body works.
The endocrine system is made up of endocrine glands. These glands produce hormones (chemicals that control many of our body’s functions). Each hormone regulates the body in a different way. How quickly you grow, how much wee (urine) you produce, and when you go through puberty are all controlled by hormones. Hormones can sometimes even effect how tired you get.
The glands that make up the endocrine system are the pituitary, hypothalamus, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, pancreas, and ovaries (for girls) or testicles (for guys). Some cancer treatments can damage these glands and cause the following problems.
Problems with growth and development
Some cancer treatments can affect your growth. If you haven’t finished growing, treatment can leave you shorter than you would have been.
Sometimes treatments have short-term effects on growth, and you’ll keep growing normally once your treatment’s finished. Sometimes your growth will be affected long-term, but there are things that can be done to help. For example, your doctor might prescribe growth hormone for you.
If you’re worried about your treatment affecting your growth, talk to your doctor or nurse.
Your thyroid gland is at the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. The thyroid makes a lot of hormones, which go into the bloodstream and affect your metabolism, body temperature, growth and development. Two problems that can happen to your thyroid after treatment are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
This is when your thyroid gland doesn’t produce as much of a hormone called thyroxine as it’s supposed to. This is the most common thyroid problem people have after treatment.
Some of the things you might notice if your body isn’t producing enough thyroxine are:
- a slow heart rate
- muscle cramps and joint pain
- weight gain
- dry, itchy skin
It’s important to mention any problems you’re having to your healthcare team.
The cancer treatment that causes hypothyroidism the most often is radiotherapy, because radiotherapy can damage the thyroid gland.
Hypothyroidism is very easy to treat. You’ll need to take a thyroxine tablet every day to replace the thyroxine you’re no longer producing naturally.
If you have hyperthyroidism, it means your thyroid gland is producing too much thyroxine. This problem is less common after treatment, but it sometimes happens.
Signs of having too much thyroxine in your body include:
- losing weight without trying to
- feeling hyperactive (like you have too much energy)
- feeling nervous or anxious and not knowing why
- a small lump in your throat.
If you notice any of these symptoms or are worried, speak to your doctor. If they find you have an overactive thyroid, it’s easy to treat. Your doctor will tell you the best way to treat it, but for more information you can look on the NHS Choices website.
It’s important to remember that not all cancer treatment affects fertility. Even if your fertility is affected, things can be done to help. We have more info about cancer, treatments and fertility.
The ovaries, testicles, thyroid, pituitary, hypothalamus and adrenal glands all produce hormones that control fertility. These hormones also stimulate puberty. Problems can be caused when either the cancer itself or cancer treatment affects one of these glands or organs. This can affect some people’s fertility.
Cancer treatment may also alter the part of the brain that controls the endocrine system.
It’s important to remember that these changes might not be permanent.
Central adrenal insufficiency
Adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system. There are two adrenal glands, and they sit on the top of each kidney. They’re produce a number of hormones that are needed for survival.
One of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands is cortisol. Cortisol is important because it helps keep your blood sugars stable. It also helps your body cope with physical stress like infection or injury.
If you have central adrenal insufficiency, it means your body isn't producing enough of a hormone called the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is produced by the pituitary gland, but it stimulates the adrenal glands to make cortisol.
Symptoms of central adrenal insufficiency can be very mild. You might feel tired, weak and dizzy, or never feel hungry. Or you might not have any symptoms until your body’s put under stress, such as surgery, fever or infection. These symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, low blood sugars and dehydration.
Central adrenal insufficiency is usually very easily treated with a drug called hydrocortisone. Your doctor will work out the amount of hydrocortisone you need to take. This dose might change when your body’s going through stress, but your doctor will always tell you if they think you should increase your dose.
What happens next?
If you have an endocrine problem, your doctor will refer you to a specialist called an endocrinologist. The endocrinologist will talk to you about your medical history and any treatment you’ve had. They may ask you to have tests, such as blood tests or a bone density test.
Most hormone problems are treated with hormone therapy. Your endocrinologist will work out what treatment you need. They’ll also arrange follow-up appointments to check how things are going. In between appointments you can always tell your treatment team or your GP if you have any worries.