Late effects of cancer treatment

Late effects are side effects that do not go away after cancer treatment. They can also be side effects that do not happen until months or years after treatment.

What are late effects?

Late effects are side effects that do not go away after cancer treatment. They can also be side effects that do not happen until months or years after treatment.

Your cancer team can tell you about the risk of any late effects of your treatment. They can tell you which signs and symptoms to look out for. Ask them if there is anything you can do to reduce the risk of these happening. They may also tell you if there are any regular tests you can have to find problems early on.

Tell your cancer team if your side effects do not improve after treatment, or if you get new signs or symptoms. If needed, they can arrange tests to check your symptoms. They can also give you advice on what you can do to help manage your side effects.

Will I have late effects from my treatment?

Your cancer doctor or nurse can tell you whether you are likely to have any late effects from your treatment. This will depend on which treatment you have.

You will have regular follow-up appointments at the hospital after you finish treatment. This is to monitor how you are and to check for any late effects. You may have some tests and scans as part of your follow-up.

Possible late effects include: 

  • Lymphoedema

    Radiotherapy or surgery to lymph nodes may cause a swelling called lymphoedema. This usually affects your arms or legs (limbs). But it can affect other parts of the body, depending on which area was treated. 

    Follow the advice from your specialist nurse to reduce your risk. This includes looking after and protecting your skin in the area which was treated. If you notice any swelling, get it checked by a doctor straight away and tell your cancer team. The earlier lymphoedema is diagnosed, the easier it is to manage and treat successfully.

  • Effects on the heart and lungs

    Certain cancer treatments may increase your risk of developing different heart and lung problems in the future. Radiotherapy to the middle of the chest or the left breast may increase the risk of heart problems. Radiotherapy to treat lung cancer may cause lung changes, such as scarring. 

    Different cancer drugs may also cause heart problems. These problems may include high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms. If you are at risk of these side effects, you will usually have checks on your heart before treatment. You may also have checks during and after treatment. 

    Many people who have these drugs or treatments do not develop any effects. If you are worried, you can ask your cancer team if your heart or lungs are likely to be affected in the long term.

  • Effects on the bones

    Hormonal therapy to treat breast or prostate cancer can increase the risk of bone thinning (osteoporosis). This may mean you are more likely to get a break (fracture) in a bone.

    Radiotherapy to the pelvis area may increase the risk of bone changes, such as small insufficiency fractures in the pelvis, but this is not common. 

    Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking and resistance exercise, and a healthy balanced diet can help to look after your bones.

  • Effects on the head and neck

    Radiotherapy to the head and neck can cause late effects. For example, it can cause a dry mouth because you have less saliva or saliva may be stickier. Some people may lose their sense of taste. A dry mouth can often be managed by taking artificial saliva products and having sips of water often. Using a sodium bicarbonate mouthwash may help clear thick saliva. Both surgery and radiotherapy to the head and neck area can affect eating and speech. Specialist health professionals, such as dietitians and speech therapists, can help with changes to eating and speech.

  • Effects on the bowel and bladder

    Radiotherapy to the lower tummy area (pelvis) can cause late effects of the bowel and bladder. These can often be managed or treated successfully. Some people may have changes to their bowel habit, such as diarrhoea or constipation. Changing your diet to reduce foods high in fibre can often help manage bowel problems. You can also take medicines to control diarrhoea or constipation.

    Effects on the bladder can mean you need to pass urine (pee) more often and some people may get some leakage. Drinking plenty of fluids and keeping to a healthy weight can help to relieve pressure on your pelvic floor. You can also avoid things that may irritate the bladder, for example caffeine and alcohol.

  • Second cancer

    Certain cancer treatments may slightly increase the risk of developing another cancer in the future. But usually the benefits of treatment will far outweigh any risk. Your cancer team can give you more information about this.

  • Sex and fertility

    Cancer treatment may affect your sex life in different ways. It may also affect your ability to get pregnant or make someone pregnant (fertility).

Talking to your doctor

Always let your cancer doctor or nurse know:

Some late effects may be similar to symptoms you had when you were diagnosed with cancer. It can be frightening to have symptoms after treatment ends. You may worry that the cancer has come back.

Your cancer team will assess your symptoms and explain whether they could be caused by the treatment. You may need tests to check for other causes, such as the cancer coming back or a new cancer. Sometimes, symptoms are caused by other conditions not related to the cancer or its treatment.

Remember that you can arrange to see your cancer doctor or specialist nurse in between appointments. You can also contact your GP at any time.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

What you can do to reduce the risk of late effects

Your cancer doctor or nurse can tell you if there is anything you can do to help reduce the risk of certain late effects. This could include:

We have more information about beginning to recover.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our after treatment information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at  cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    European Society for Medical Oncology: Supporting self-management of patients and family members. 2019. 

    Macmillan Cancer Support. Providing personalised care for people living with cancer: a guide for professionals providing holistic needs assessments, care and support planning. 2019. 

    Maher, J et al. Implementation of nationwide cancer survivorship plans: Experience from the UK. Journal of Cancer Policy. 2018. Vol 15, pp 76-81.       


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.