Lasting physical side effects of cancer

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By Amye Tevaarwerk, M.D.

Cancer and cancer treatments can change how you look and feel about your body. Active treatment is a physically intense journey that can alter your body permanently. You may have scars, changes to your hair and skin, or even lose a body part. Your weight and strength can fluctuate substantially.

Some physical side effects can continue for months or years after diagnosis and treatment. Some changes will be noticeable to other people, while others will not. The good news is that treatments and resources are available that can lessen the effects of some side effects. Healthy lifestyle habits can make a difference, as well.

Physical changes due to cancer

Enduring side effects are usually related to the types of cancer treatment you had. For many patients, treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. These treatments can cause dramatic and rapid physical changes. Endocrine or hormone therapy also are common treatments, although side effects from those treatments may be more subtle or slower to emerge.

Despite the wide variability in treatments, survivors share some similarities in physical changes and challenges, such as:

  • Fatigue
    Persistent fatigue is the most common side effect caused by cancer and cancer treatment. It's usually described as feeling tired, weak or exhausted, and may not improve even with rest. It can occur occasionally and last just a short time or could last several months after your treatment. Fatigue is a challenge to treat because there aren't many approved medications available and other factors often contribute, like pain, sleep disruptions or emotional stress.
  • Surgical site pain or scarring
    Depending on the type of surgery performed, you may struggle with discomfort, lymphedema (swelling) and nerve pain. Surgical scars take time to heal and may be prominent or noticeable immediately after treatment. Fortunately, surgical techniques have improved, which has lessened lasting side effects and pain from surgery.
  • Hormonal changes
    Physical changes can happen because some chemotherapy treatments may move premenopausal women into menopause abruptly. For cancers that are sensitive to hormones, endocrine or hormone therapy is used to reduce the risk that cancers will recur. Some women opt to undergo treatment to stop their ovaries from producing hormones as part of their endocrine therapy. These treatments change hormone levels in your body temporarily or permanently. Some side effects that could last beyond treatment include hot flashes, joint symptoms, sexual health changes, sleep changes, headaches, weight gain and memory changes.
  • Changes in activity levels
    You may find your range of motion or mobility is restricted after surgery. Or you might stop exercising due to side effects from chemotherapy or radiation. Fatigue also can limit your ability to perform daily activities and move around. This may improve with time and physical therapy.

Symptoms and side effects can be temporary or permanent. How long they last depend on many factors like types of treatments, symptoms during treatment, age, and type and stage of cancer.

Tips for physical recovery

You can improve your strength and stamina during cancer treatment and recovery by taking these steps:

  • Remain physically active.
    We encourage patients during and after treatment to remain as active as possible. It's the "use it or lose it" philosophy, so the more active you are during treatment, the less you need to do during recovery. Exercise may strengthen your immune system, provide more strength and endurance, and improve your mental health. Vigorous exercise isn't necessary. Most people feel significant physical and emotional benefits from regular 15-minute walks or short but intense bursts of activity. Talk with your health care team about the types of exercise that are safe for you.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
    It's important to eat a well-balanced, heart-healthy diet for general health and to decrease the risk of cancer. A healthy diet focuses on lean meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, while limiting processed or sugary foods. Also, drink plenty of water to remain hydrated and try to limit your alcohol use.
  • Get enough sleep.
    Fatigue can worsen if you aren't getting quality sleep each night. Prioritize your sleep by establishing a regular sleep routine and making your bedroom a quiet sanctuary.
  • Manage stress levels.
    Cancer, like all serious illnesses, produces lots of stress. Chronic stress can weaken your immune system and increase feelings of fatigue. Try relaxation and meditation techniques to manage stress. Ask for help from family and friends during and after treatment. Participate in a local support group and schedule social activities to interact with others.

Survivorship care plan

A person who has had cancer often is called a survivor. Cancer survivorship is a way of describing a person's journey through cancer, from diagnosis and active or maintenance treatments, to recovery and observation. Family members, friends and caregivers also are considered part of the survivorship experience, as cancer has wide-reaching effects on your support network, as well.

A cancer survivorship care plan can be an important part of your cancer journey. The plan seeks to help you manage side effects and other practical concerns after cancer treatment. It is a road map of your cancer journey and what you might expect as you focus on healing. It also can outline available resources to aid in your recovery after treatment.

Talk with your health care team about a cancer survivorship care plan. Remember that resources are available to help you cope as a cancer survivor. It is essential to keep in contact with your health care team about any symptoms you experience. Treatments often are available that can help.

Amye Tevaarwerk, M.D., is a Mayo Clinic oncologist who also sees patients in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Rochester, Minnesota.

Learn more

Learn more about caring for your body after cancer treatment.

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A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic Health System Hometown Health Blog.