Chemotherapy is the most common form of treatment for cancer. It uses aggressive drugs to slow the growth of cancer cells.
You might already be aware of the short-term side effects of chemotherapy, like hair loss and nausea.
The long-term side effects — also called “late effects” — are less well-known. They usually appear after chemotherapy is finished. Late effects of chemotherapy vary according to the individual, type of cancer, and type of chemotherapy drug used.
This article reviews the potential long-term effects of chemotherapy.
One of the short- and long-term side effects of chemotherapy is mental fogginess, often referred to as “chemo brain.” It includes problems with memory, concentration, and multi-tasking. In some cases, these cognitive challenges persist for several years after treatment is complete.
It’s not clear precisely how chemotherapy affects cognition. A
You may be able to alleviate cognitive difficulties by eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and doing brain exercises.
Certain chemotherapy drugs can lead to long-term hearing loss. These include carboplatin and cisplatin.
If you’re receiving carboplatin or cisplatin chemotherapy, talk to your doctor about the risks to your hearing.
Chemotherapy can lead to high blood pressure and heart diseases, including:
- congestive heart failure
- carotid artery disease
- coronary artery disease
- damaged heart valves
- pericardial fibrosis
- pericardial effusion
The risk of developing a heart problem after chemotherapy is greater for those who are over 65 and those who received higher doses of certain drugs.
Chemotherapy drugs that damage the heart and circulatory system issues include:
If you’re prescribed one of these drugs, your healthcare team will carefully monitor your heart and circulatory system function before, during, and after treatment. If a problem occurs, your doctor might change your dose, prescribe protective medication, or stop the treatment altogether.
Chemotherapy has been linked to a small increase in risk for blood cancers.
A 2017 study of more than 92,000 people who underwent chemotherapy found that those who received anthracycline with or without taxane were at a slightly increased risk of developing leukemia or myelodysplasia in the 7-year period following treatment.
More research needs to be done to understand why these cancers develop and whether or not they can be prevented. Your doctor will help you weigh the risks and benefits of your treatment.
Chemotherapy drugs including bleomycin, carmustine, mitomycin, and methotrexate have been linked to lung conditions such as pneumonitis. Pneumonitis causes symptoms such as chest tightness, difficulty breathing, and fatigue.
It may not be possible to prevent lung damage caused by chemotherapy, but you can take care of your lungs by exercising regularly, avoiding lung irritants, and quitting smoking. If you’re experiencing lung symptoms such as shortness of breath, tell your doctor.
A number of chemotherapy drugs can damage the nervous system. These include docetaxel, paclitaxel, and vinorelbine, among others.
A common symptom of nerve damage is neuropathic pain. This condition causes numbness, burning, or tingling in your limbs, hands, and feet. This pain is more likely to persist if you have other medical conditions that put you at risk, such as diabetes.
While there’s no known way to prevent it altogether, you may be able to ease the pain by adopting a healthy lifestyle, taking your medications as prescribed, and wearing loose-fitting hand and footwear.
Chemotherapy drugs can thin and weaken the bones. This condition is called osteoporosis. It’s more likely to occur in women experiencing menopause, as menopause is also associated with a loss of bone density.
Having osteoporosis puts you at an increased risk of breaking a bone. To mitigate the risk, your doctor might suggest increasing your dietary calcium intake, taking a calcium supplement, or taking medication to improve bone strength.
Chemotherapy drugs can affect your hormones, your sex life, and your reproductive system. In women, it can increase your susceptibility to infections or trigger early menopause. Men may experience erectile dysfunction.
A number of chemotherapy drugs, such as alkylating agents, can cause infertility. Infertility may disappear following treatment, but in some cases it may be permanent. Whether or not you experience this side effect depends on your overall health, your age, and the type and dose of chemotherapy drug you receive.
Your doctor will make sure you’re aware of the risks associated with treatment. If having children is a concern, they might suggest freezing your eggs or sperm banking before treatment begins. A fertility specialist can help you explore your options.
The side effects of chemotherapy can linger for months and sometimes years. It depends on your overall health and the type of chemotherapy you receive as treatment.
Some complications of chemotherapy are permanent. These can include damage to your respiratory, circulatory, sensory, excretory, and reproductive systems.
Before receiving chemotherapy, ask your doctor or oncologist about the likelihood of long-term or permanent side effects.
Chemotherapy can cause a number of late-term side effects. These may start during treatment and continue after it’s done. In other cases, they appear for the first time after chemotherapy is finished.
Side effects can vary according to your health, the type of cancer you have, and other treatments you receive.
If you’re receiving chemotherapy, speak to your healthcare team about potential side effects.