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Even after cancer treatment ends, it’s common for cancer survivors to continue feeling the physical effects. And the physical changes may not occur for months or years after being treated with surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy or hormone therapy.
Long-term physical effects that cancer survivors can experience include fatigue, mental health changes, cognitive changes (or “chemo-brain”), sexual dysfunction and infertility, lymphedema, neuropathy and chronic pain.
When lymph nodes are surgically removed or treated with radiation, it increases the risk of lymphedema – a fluid buildup that causes swelling. Signs of lymphedema include clothing feeling tighter, heaviness or fullness in the arms or legs, and pitting (or indentations that remain when swollen skin is pressed).
Lymphedema can develop within the first two years of cancer treatment – but it also occurs much later after surgery and radiation.
Mercy offers specialized lymphedema physical therapy as well as prevention tips.
To help reduce your risk of developing lymphedema, try to:
PMPS occurs in about 30% of women after breast cancer surgery. It’s described as a “nerve-like” (neuropathic) pain involving the chest wall, underarm or arm that doesn’t go away over time. Other symptoms can include numbness, tingling, a shooting or pricking pain, burning or an itching sensation.
PMPS can lead to decreased range of motion in the arms and shoulders. It’s more likely to develop in women who’ve had lymph nodes removed from their underarms or were treated with radiation after mastectomy. The ongoing pain and symptoms caused by PMPS can impact women’s quality of life.
Several options are available for treating PMPS, including physical and occupational therapy. Talk with your Mercy provider about ways to manage pain and improve mobility.
Cancer-related cognitive impairment (called “chemo brain”) is a complex and often distressing symptom that might not appear until treatment is completed. Common signs include a decline in memory, difficulty concentrating and problems with multitasking. Chemo brain can make returning to work more difficult and may affect interpersonal relationships.
Approximately 50% of patients who report cognitive changes during chemotherapy demonstrate improvement within the first year to 18 months after completion of treatment.
Talk with your Mercy provider about your symptoms to find out if chemo brain is causing them. If you’re experiencing chemo brain, tell others what’s happening, such as family, friends or your supervisor at work. They can provide support and may even have helpful suggestions.
Other ways to manage chemo brain include:
Chemotherapy can affect the nervous system, resulting in a condition called peripheral neuropathy. This nerve disorder is caused by damage to nerves in the hands, feet, legs or arms.
Signs of peripheral neuropathy include numbness, tingling, pain and muscle weakness in the limbs, hands or feet. Let your Mercy doctor know right away if you’re experiencing these symptoms. When recognized and treated early, peripheral neuropathy may be reversible.
If you’re experiencing peripheral neuropathy, you’ll want to:
Fatigue is one of the most common side effects experienced by cancer patients and survivors. Fatigue can impact their physical, psychological and social functioning.
While there are no medications specifically to treat fatigue, lifestyle changes like healthy eating and physical activity can improve it. It’s also important to talk about fatigue with your Mercy provider. Your doctor can determine whether it’s caused by other correctable conditions, such as insomnia, anxiety, stress, depression, thyroid disease, anemia or nutritional deficiencies.
To improve symptoms of fatigue, try to:
Many cancer treatments can lead to a loss of bone density. Osteoporosis is a health condition in which a person’s bones become less dense and more likely to fracture. Osteoporosis can be prevented and treated, but if left undetected it can cause progressive bone loss and serious injury.
Take these steps to prevent bone loss and manage osteoporosis symptoms:
Women who’ve undergone treatment for any type of cancer can experience menopausal symptoms. Cancer treatment can cause irregularity in a premenopausal women’s menstrual cycles, resulting in symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, weight changes and irritability. These changes may be temporary, but sometimes they remain longer after treatment. And women treated for breast and gynecological cancers are particularly susceptible to menopausal symptoms.
Talk with your Mercy provider if you experience menopausal symptoms after cancer treatment. Your provider will discuss options based on your symptoms.
Insomnia is common in cancer survivors and people undergoing cancer treatment. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, talk with your Mercy doctor. Medication options are available to help treat moderate-to-severe cases of insomnia.
To help improve the quality of your sleep, try to:
Keep in mind that post-treatment symptoms are common among cancer survivors, and many are treatable. It’s always best to ask your Mercy provider for assistance in minimizing and managing your symptoms.
Mercy also offers other resources and programs to support cancer survivors in body, mind and spirit.
For more survivorship information, visit the LIVESTRONG Foundation, the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.