- Cancer Information
- Living well
- Living well after cancer
- Managing side effects
- Other common cancer-related effects
Other common cancer-related effects
Cancer survivors can experience a range of other physical issues after treatment. Some common side effects are discussed below. If you would like more information about managing these or any other issues, call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Learn more about:
- Balance or mobility problems
- Bowel or bladder changes
- Heart health
- Bone density loss (osteoporosis)
- Hearing problems
- Mouth or teeth problems
- Side effects of androgen deprivation therapy
Balance or mobility problems
Surgery or cancer treatment may have affected your balance or ability to walk or move around. Balance training guided by an exercise physiologist, physiotherapist or occupational therapist may help improve your balance and muscle strength.
Bowel or bladder changes
Changes to how your bowel or bladder works can be very distressing and have a significant impact on quality of life. Some medicines and cancer treatments can cause constipation, diarrhoea or incontinence. After treatment, some people have a stoma that allows urine (wee) or faeces (poo) to be collected in a bag. These changes may be temporary or ongoing, and may require specialised help or products. If you have any of these issues, talk to your GP, specialist doctor, specialist nurse or dietitian. Drinking more water and changing what you eat may also help.
This is when a person is not able to control their bladder or bowel. Temporary or permanent incontinence can be a side effect of treatment for cancer of the bladder, bowel, prostate, penis, ovaries, uterus, cervix or vagina. For many people, incontinence is an embarrassing problem. There are ways to better manage or perhaps even cure incontinence, for example, a physiotherapist can teach you exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. For more information and support, call the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66.
Radiation therapy to the pelvic area can damage the lining of the rectum, causing inflammation and swelling known as radiation proctitis. Your treatment team will try to reduce the risk of developing radiation proctitis. It is usually a short-term side effect but may be ongoing in some people. Radiation proctitis can cause a range of symptoms including blood in bowel motions; frequent passing of loose, watery faeces (diarrhoea); the need to empty the bowels urgently; and loss of control over the bowels (faecal incontinence).
The risk of developing radiation proctitis is low, but you may develop some of these symptoms for other reasons. Let your treatment team know if you develop any of these symptoms. They can refer you to a bowel care nurse for support. If you have ongoing bowel problems, your treatment team may refer you to a gastroenterologist.
The blood vessels in the bowel and bladder can become more fragile after radiation therapy to the pelvic area. This can cause blood to appear in your urine (wee) or faeces (poo), months or even years after treatment. Always seek advice from your specialist or GP if you notice new or unusual bleeding. Keep in mind that it may not be related to your treatment.
Radiation therapy to the chest area and some types of chemotherapy may damage the heart muscle and lead to an increased risk of heart problems after treatment. Risk factors include certain types of drugs, such as anthracycline chemotherapy drugs and some targeted therapies; radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy (chemoradiation); having treatment at a younger age; diabetes; high blood pressure (hypertension); obesity; and smoking.
If you have received high-risk chemotherapy or targeted therapy drugs, radiation therapy to the chest or whole body, or combined radiation therapy and chemotherapy, talk to your doctor about your heart health, the symptoms to look out for, and whether you need regular heart checks. If you develop heart problems later in life, make sure you let your doctors know about the cancer treatment you had.
Regular exercise, managing your cholesterol, blood pressure and weight, and stopping smoking can help you look after your heart health. For more on this, see Looking after yourself.
Bone density loss (osteoporosis)
Cancer and its treatment, particularly radiation therapy, can have long-term effects on your bone strength. Menopause and some types of hormone therapy may also cause bones to weaken and break more easily. Talk to your doctor about having a bone density test or taking medicine to prevent your bones from becoming weak.
Regular weight-bearing exercise (e.g. brisk walking), eating calcium-rich foods (e.g. yoghurt, milk, tofu, green vegetables), getting enough vitamin D, limiting alcohol and not smoking will also help keep your bones strong. For more information, call Healthy Bones Australia on 1800 242 141.
Radiation therapy to the head or neck and some chemotherapy drugs can affect your hearing. Some people lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds, or develop a constant ringing in their ears known as tinnitus. These problems may get better when treatment ends or they may be permanent. Tell your GP if you notice any change in your hearing or if these symptoms don’t go away.
You may have mouth sores or tooth decay, find it difficult to swallow, or have a dry mouth. These problems can affect your ability to eat, drink, manage your weight or talk. Depending on the type of cancer and treatment, these problems may be temporary or ongoing.
It may help to see a dietitian or speech pathologist. It is important to have regular dental check-ups after cancer treatment, especially if you had surgery or radiation therapy to the head or neck region.
For more on this, see Mouth health and cancer treatment.
Side effects of androgen deprivation therapy
Males who have androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) to treat prostate cancer may experience side effects such as hot flushes, erection problems, mood changes, fatigue, loss of muscle strength, loss of bone density (osteoporosis), high cholesterol and weight gain.
Studies show that regular exercise can help manage the side effects of ADT. See Exercise after a cancer diagnosis for examples of aerobic, flexibility and strength-training exercises. It may also help to speak to a dietitian for advice on healthy eating.
For more information, talk to your specialist, GP or a sex therapist and see Prostate cancer.
Podcast for people affected by cancer
Prof Michael Jefford, Medical Oncologist and Director, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Lucy Bailey, Nurse Counsellor, Cancer Council Queensland; Philip Bullas, Consumer; Dr Kate Gunn, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Rural Health, University of South Australia, SA; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof David Joske, Clinical Haematologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and Clinical Professor of Medicine, The University of Western Australia, WA; Kim Kerin-Ayres, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Survivorship, Concord Hospital, NSW; Sally Littlewood, Physiotherapist, Seymour Health, VIC; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health,VIC; Melanie Moore, Exercise Physiologist and Clinical Supervisor, University of Canberra Cancer Wellness Clinic, ACT; June Savva, Senior Clinician Dietitian, Nutrition and Dietetics, Monash Cancer Centre, Monash Health, VIC; Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, Specialist General Practitioner and Research Fellow, University of New South Wales, NSW; Prof Janette Vardy, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre and Professor of Cancer Medicine, The University of Sydney, NSW; Lyndell Wills, Consumer.
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