Cancer survivors: Late effects of cancer treatment
Learn about late and long-term effects of cancer treatment so that you can take control of your health as a cancer survivor.
Your cancer treatment is over, but the effects of treatment might continue. The treatments that may have saved your life may also cause side effects going forward.
As more people live longer after treatment, more is being found out about late side effects.
Find out all you can about late effects of cancer treatment. Use this information to help manage your health.
What are late effects of cancer treatment?
Late effects are side effects of cancer treatment that show up after your treatment has ended. Cancer survivors might have late effects of cancer treatment years later.
What cancer treatments cause late effects?
Late effects of cancer treatment can come from any of the main treatment types. These include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation, surgery, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. As newer cancer treatments become available, these might be found to cause late effects, too.
Not everyone who has cancer treatment gets each of the late effects. Some people might not have any late effects.
Different chemotherapy medicines cause different late effects. So if you didn’t receive the chemotherapy medicines that can cause infertility, you aren’t believed to be at risk of that late effect.
Late effects of radiation and surgery affect only the area of the body exposed to them. If radiation was used on a body part other than the head or neck, there won’t be a risk of cavities and tooth decay.
What are the late effects of treatment for childhood cancer?
People who underwent cancer treatment as children may be at risk of many of the same late side effects that can happen after cancer treatment in adults.
Childhood cancer survivors may be at risk of additional late side effects. That’s because children’s bones, tissues and organs grow quickly. Cancer treatment can interfere during this critical time of growth.
Late side effects in childhood cancer survivors depend on the type of cancer and treatment. The age at which you were treated may determine what late side effects, if any, you might have.
- Heart problems, including a higher risk of heart attack
- Blood vessel problems, including a higher risk of stroke
- Lung problems, which can cause difficulty breathing
- Liver problems
- Kidney problems
- Bone problems, such as joint pain and bone thinning, which is also called osteoporosis
- Short stature, caused by slow bone growth
- Memory issues and learning disabilities
- Vision loss
- Hearing loss
- Thyroid problems
- Increased risk of other types of cancers
- Nerve damage
Some of these problems are common as people age. Someone who was treated for cancer many years ago might not realize these problems could be related to past cancer treatment. Make sure your health care provider knows about your childhood cancer treatments.
If your parents or other family members have records of your treatment, give those to your provider. Save any records that explain what chemotherapy and radiation treatments you had. Keep them so you can share them with other health care providers you might see in the future.
What symptoms might mean that you’re experiencing late effects of cancer treatment?
Talk to your health care provider about the late effects of your treatment. For some treatments, the late effects are known. Your provider may know what effects to watch for. But the late effects of some newer treatments still aren’t known.
Your provider might be able to help you understand what symptoms might mean that you’re experiencing late effects of cancer treatment. Your provider also might screen you for late effects of treatment when you come in for follow-up appointments after your treatment is completed.
Report to your provider any symptoms that concern you. It’s best to have them checked so that you don’t worry about what could be wrong.
If you were treated for cancer many years ago or are no longer seeing a cancer specialist, talk to your usual health care provider about late effects. If you think you might be experiencing late effects or your provider isn’t sure what late effects to watch for, ask for a referral to a cancer specialist.
What can you do to prevent late effects of cancer treatment?
It isn’t clear that late effects can be prevented or why some people might experience late effects while others don’t. While this can be frustrating, you can take steps to help cope should you experience late effects. Help your body feel stronger and healthier by exercising and eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Don’t use tobacco. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Protect your skin from the sun.
Nov. 03, 2022
- Long-term side effects of cancer treatment. Cancer.Net. https://www.cancer.net/survivorship/long-term-side-effects-cancer-treatment. Accessed Sept. 11, 2022.
- Survivorship. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. https://www.nccn.org/guidelines/guidelines-detail?category=3&id=1466. Accessed Aug. 19, 2022.
- Rock CL, et al. American Cancer Society nutrition and physical activity guideline for cancer survivors. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2022; doi:10.3322/caac.21719.
- Late effects of treatment for childhood cancer (PDQ) — Patient version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/childhood-cancers/late-effects-pdq#section/all. Accessed Sept. 11, 2022.
- Long-term follow-up guidelines for survivors of childhood, adolescent and young adult cancers. Children’s Oncology Group. http://survivorshipguidelines.org. Accessed Aug. 19, 2022.