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Your treatment is over, but your risk of side effects goes on. You might be surprised to know that side effects can continue after your cancer treatment or even develop several years later. Some cancer survivors wonder why they weren't told about the possibility of lingering side effects before they began treatment.
The fact is that not much is known about late effects. While the lack of information can be frustrating for cancer survivors, don't feel completely helpless. Find out all you can about late effects of cancer treatment and use this information to take control of your health.
Late effects are side effects of cancer treatment that become apparent after your treatment has ended. Cancer survivors might experience late effects of cancer treatment a few months after treatment is completed or years later.
It isn't clear why these effects are delayed. Some doctors believe that late effects simply weren't noticed during and immediately after your treatment, though the damage may have been there all along. It could be that your body was compensating for the damage caused by cancer treatment and is no longer able to do that, revealing these late effects.
Some side effects start during your cancer treatment and linger for months or years after. These are called long-term side effects of cancer treatment. For example, nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy) is common during some types of chemotherapy and may begin during treatment but linger for months or even years after cancer treatment is completed. Most long-term effects lessen with time.
Some cancer survivors wonder why they weren't told about the possibility of lingering or late side effects before they began treatment. Sometimes cancer survivors were told, but with so much to remember and go through when you're first diagnosed and beginning treatment, it's easy to forget or not absorb all the information you're given. Sometimes your doctor doesn't discuss late side effects because it's impossible to discuss every single side effect, early or late, that some treatments have. It's also possible that the late effects of your treatment weren't known at the time you began that treatment.
Late effects of cancer treatment can come from any of the three main types of cancer treatment: chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. As newer types of cancer treatment are developed, doctors may find that these treatments also cause late effects in cancer survivors.
In general, chemotherapy tends to cause more long-term side effects in cancer survivors, though it can cause serious late effects. Radiation usually causes late effects in cancer survivors, though it can also cause long-term effects. If you have a combination of treatments, you're more likely to experience late effects.
||Long-term side effects
||Late side effects
Reduced lung capacity
Second primary cancers
Cavities and tooth decay
Second primary cancers
Keep in mind that not everyone who has cancer treatment gets each of the long-term or late side effects, and some people might not experience any aftereffects of treatment. Different chemotherapy drugs cause different late effects. So if you didn't take the chemotherapy drugs that can cause hearing loss, then you aren't believed to be at risk of that particular late effect. Radiation and surgery will only affect the area of the body they're used to treat. So if you had radiation to a part of your body other than your head or neck, then you won't be at risk of cavities and tooth loss in the future.
Talk to your doctor about the late effects of your particular treatment. In some cases your doctor will know what effects you're at risk of. But also know that the late effects of many treatments still aren't known.
Your doctor might be able to help you understand what signs and symptoms are clues that you're experiencing certain late effects of your cancer treatment. Your doctor might also screen you for late effects of treatment when you come in for follow-up appointments after your cancer treatment is completed.
Report to your doctor any signs or symptoms that bother you. It's best to have them checked out so that, at the very least, you don't spend a lot of time worrying about what could be wrong. And catching late effects early gives you the best chance at treating them.
If you were treated for cancer many years ago or are no longer seeing a cancer specialist for checkups, talk to your primary care physician or family doctor about late effects. If you think you might be experiencing late effects or your doctor isn't sure what late effects to watch for, ask for a referral to a cancer specialist.
It isn't clear that late effects are preventable or why some people might experience late effects while others don't. This can be frustrating and is only made worse by the fact that relatively little is known about late effects of cancer treatment.
Don't feel hopeless. Take steps to make your body strong and healthy, such as exercising and eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. This will help you deal better with late effects, should they develop.