Long term and late side effects
The side effects of treatment usually get better over time. But some people may have side effects that carry on for more than six months (long-term effects) or that start months or years after they’ve finished treatment (late effects).
Speak to your healthcare team if any side effects are not getting better or if you are having any new problems. The team can offer treatment and support.
People cope with side effects in different ways. Things that people with cancer say have helped them include:
- Changing their work-life balance
- Focusing on the positive things in their lives
- Improving their diet
- Taking more exercise
- Using complementary therapies
Possible late and long-term effects of treatment include:
- Nerve damage
- Changes in bowel function
- Changes in sexual function
- Changes in bladder function
Cancer and its treatment can cause extreme tiredness (fatigue). The worry and uncertainty of living with a cancer diagnosis can also affect your sleep. Sleep problems can last for many months after treatment finishes. Stress and anxiety can make it difficult to get to sleep or cause you to wake up during the night. If you continue to have problems sleeping, talk to your GP.
Find out more about sleep and fatigue.
After surgery to your stomach area (abdomen), your muscles will not be as strong as before and you may be at risk of getting a hernia. This is caused by part of your insides pushing through a weak part of the muscle or tissue wall. After surgery for colon or rectal cancer, part of your bowel can push through the wound. Some people develop a hernia around their stoma (para-stomal hernia). Others may get a hernia after having their stoma reversed. You may not have any symptoms but you might notice a slight lump or bulge, especially when you cough or strain the muscle. Some people have some pain in the area.
To help prevent a hernia, avoid lifting anything heavy for up to three months after surgery. Once you have recovered from surgery, ask your healthcare team about abdominal exercises to build up your core (abdominal) muscles. They may also advise you to wear a support belt or garment.
You may not need any treatment or your healthcare team may offer you surgery to repair the hernia.
The chemotherapy drug oxaliplatin can damage the nerve endings in the hands, feet and lower legs. This is called neuropathy. In some people, neuropathy can last for months or years after treatment. You may get pins and needles, weakness or numbness. This can make it hard to do everyday things like writing, picking up small items and walking. Some people become sensitive to the cold and need to wear gloves when they use the fridge or freezer. Your symptoms may get worse before they get better.
Find out more about peripheral neuropathy.
Changes in bowel function
Regaining bowel control can be one of the biggest challenges that you face after treatment for bowel cancer. These problems may be worse in the year after treatment but can carry on long term. Speak to your healthcare team if any side effects are not getting better or if you are having any new problems.
Find out more about how to manage changes in bowel habit after treatment.
Changes in sexual function
Cancer and its treatment can change how you think and feel about your body and could lead to sexual problems. You may feel sad, angry or worried about changes to your body. Speak to your GP or healthcare team if you feel you need any extra help, they may be able to refer you to a specialist.
Find out more about body image and sex.
Surgery for rectal cancer can affect the nerves to the bladder. You may not be able to fully empty your bladder and you might leak urine. Radiotherapy can irritate your bladder so you may need to pass urine more often or with little warning. Your healthcare team can give you information on how to manage bladder problems or they can refer you to a continence service.
Bladder and Bowel Community gives information and sells products for people with bowel and bladder problems. They have a free ‘just can’t wait’ card or mobile app, to help you explain you need to use a toilet quickly.
Colostomy UK and Ileostomy and Internal Pouch Support Group have information on stoma reversal, hernias, products and clothing for people with a stoma and the National Key Scheme (RADAR) that gives access to toilets for disabled people across the UK.
Macmillan Cancer Support provides information on long-term and late side effects of treatment
Pelvic Radiation Disease Association is a patient-run charity providing support and information for people who have had pelvic radiotherapy.
The Sexual Advice Association gives practical tips in its booklet, ‘Sex and intimacy for cancer patients’.
Visit our online patient forum to talk about your experiences, share knowledge and get support from other people
Updated August 2018. Due for review March 2019.