Learn about late and long-term effects of cancer treatment so that you can take more control of your health as a cancer survivor. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Your cancer treatment is over, but the treatments that may have saved your life may also continue to cause side effects. As more people are living longer after cancer treatment, more is becoming known about late side effects of cancer treatment. Find out all you can about late effects of cancer treatment and use this information to help manage 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 years later.

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.

TreatmentLate side effects
Chemotherapy Cataracts
Early menopause
Heart problems
Infertility
Liver problems
Lung disease
Osteoporosis
Reduced lung capacity
Increased risk of other cancers
Radiation therapy Cataracts
Cavities and tooth decay
Heart problems
Hypothyroidism
Infertility
Lung disease
Intestinal problems
Memory problems
Osteoporosis
Increased risk of other cancers
Surgery Lymphedema

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 infertility, 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, for example, 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 decay as a result of your radiation therapy.

If you underwent cancer treatment as a child, you may be at risk of many of the same late side effects of treatment as people who were adults during their cancer treatments. But you may also be at risk of additional late side effects. That's because children's bones, tissues and organs are growing rapidly during treatment, so cancer treatment can interfere during this critical time of growth.

As with late side effects in adult cancer survivors, late side effects in childhood cancer survivors will vary depending on the type of cancer and type of treatment. Additionally, the age at which you were treated may determine what late side effects, if any, you might be at risk of. Some late side effects experienced by childhood cancer survivors include:

  • Heart problems, including an increased risk of heart attacks
  • Blood vessel problems, including an increased risk of stroke
  • Lung problems, which can cause difficulty breathing
  • Liver problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Bone problems, such as bone thinning (osteoporosis) and joint pain
  • Short stature, caused by slow bone growth
  • Obesity
  • Infertility
  • Memory problems and learning disabilities
  • Vision loss
  • Hearing loss
  • Increased risk of other types of cancers

If you were treated for cancer many years ago, you may assume any health problems you have are related to aging, not past cancer treatments. Tell your doctor what you know about your childhood cancer treatments. If your parents or other family members have records of your treatment, provide those for your doctor.

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 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 concern 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.

If you were treated for cancer many years ago or are no longer seeing a cancer specialist for checkups, talk to your primary care 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.

Try not to feel hopeless. Take steps to make yourself strong and healthy, such as exercising and eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. This can help you deal better with late effects, should they develop.

Oct. 07, 2011