Long-term and late effects of cancer treatment are sometimes difficult to find information on. In today’s blog, Information Development Nurse Teri talks about some of the long-term and late physical effects of treatment, and ways to manage them.

For most people, the side effects of cancer treatment begin to improve once their treatment has finished. For some people, however, the side effects don’t completely go away, and new ones may even develop months or years later.

If a side effect has not gone away within 6 months of finishing treatment, this is called a long-term effect. Long-term effects may improve and go away over time, but some can be permanent.

Some people may have late effects which can develop months or even years after treatment has finished.

Let your cancer doctor or specialist nurse know if you are still experiencing side effects or develop a new symptom or problem. They will be able to assess any symptoms you have and explain whether it might be a late effect of your cancer treatment. There are usually ways to help you cope or manage possible late effects.

This blog will focus on some of the physical long-term or late effects and ways to manage them. Late effects can depend on the treatment that you have had.

Problems with the bowel and bladder

Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy may affect the bowel and cause changes to the bladder. There are different ways bowel and bladder problems can be treated or managed. Treatment will depend on your symptoms and what the cause is. Many late bowel effects and bladder problems can be managed and treated successfully.

You may be referred to:

  • a continence specialist
  • a specialist doctor in bladder problems (urologist)
  • a specialist in stomach and bowel problems (gastroenterologist)
  • an expert doctor who specialises in treating the late effects of radiotherapy.

They may do some tests to find out the exact cause and can give you advice and support.

We have more information about managing the late effects of bowel cancer treatment and about managing the late effects of pelvic radiotherapy

Cancer treatments and bone health

Some cancer treatments reduce the levels of the hormones oestrogen and testosterone in the body. This can lead to bone loss and weakening of the bones (osteoporosis). Other cancer treatments can also cause bone loss.

If you are at risk of weak bones, you can have tests done to check your bone health. There are drug treatments that can help to reduce bone loss and protect your bones.

Your doctor may advise you to take calcium and vitamin D supplements. Some people may be prescribed bisphosphonates. If you can, try to find a type of exercise that you enjoy and exercise regularly to get the most benefit. Don’t push yourself too hard, though.

We have more information in our information on the late effects of breast cancer treatment. We also have information about physical activity

Effects on your fertility or sex life

Treatments for cancer may affect fertility. Your doctors may talk to you about ways to preserve your fertility before you start your cancer treatment. Many hospitals have specialist nurses who can offer support and fertility clinics will have a counsellor you can talk to. Your GP or cancer doctor can help to arrange this.

Cancer treatment can affect your sex life and the way you feel about yourself sexually. If you’re having sexual difficulties caused by cancer and its treatment, there are things that can help.

We have more information about how cancer treatment can affect fertility in men and women, relationships and sex and appearance and body image.


Lymphoedema is a chronic condition that causes swelling when the lymphatic system is not able to drain fluid properly.

Lymphoedema can be caused by cancer itself or develop as a side effect of cancer treatment. It may appear months or years after cancer treatment. Lymphoedema can affect different parts of the body, especially the arms and legs.

If you notice any swelling or tightness, tell your doctor or specialist nurse. Treatment can improve lymphoedema. The earlier it is started, the more likely it is to be successful.

You can reduce your risk of lymphoedema. There are different ways that lymphoedema can be managed.

Problems with eating and speaking

Treatment to your mouth, throat, stomach or intestine can affect how well you eat. For example, radiotherapy to the head and neck area, may cause a dry mouth and difficulty swallowing

Side effects usually improve with time, but may be permanent. It can take time to return to a regular eating pattern. You can ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian, who can advise what might help.

Sometimes people’s speech, voice or hearing can be affected by treatment for cancer in the head and neck. A speech and language therapist can give you exercises to strengthen and control your speech. If speech problems are caused by changes in teeth or the shape of the mouth, you may be referred to a specialist dentist, called a restorative dentist.

We have more information about the late effects of head and neck cancer treatment. We also have information about eating problems and about diet.

Cancer treatment and your heart

Some cancer treatments can affect how your heart works. Sometimes this can be long-term or permanent. Problems may develop many years later.

There are several tests your doctors can use to check your heart function before, during and after treatment. Some people have regular follow up appointments to check their heart health after cancer treatment.

We have more information about cancer treatment and your heart.

Emotional effects

You can also experience long-term emotional effects from cancer and its treatment. We have online information about how to cope and what might help you work through them. We also have a range of booklets about coping with your emotions. 

We hope this blog was helpful. Remember you can call our support line free on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm. You may also find our online Ask an Expert service helpful.


To see what else Macmillan's cancer information team has been blogging about, please visit our blog home page! You can subscribe to receive our blogs by email or RSS too.

We're with you every step of the way

The Macmillan team is here to help. Our cancer support specialists can answer your questions, offer support, or simply listen if you need a chat. Call us free on 0808 808 00 00.

Comments? Feel free to add them below (you need to be logged in).

Keep in touch Follow Macmillan’s cancer information team on Twitter @mac_cancerinfo