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Survivorship: Physical Effects

Cancer can significantly affect the human body on many levels, both physically and emotionally.  Problems may arise as a result of the cancer itself or as a result of cancer treatment.  The impact can be minor or severe.  In the worst cases, these effects can be debilitating for the patient and their healing process.  It is important for cancer survivors to speak with their doctor about any changes or concerns.

Learn about some physical effects that a cancer survivor may experience:

Many resources are available at the Emory Winship Cancer Institute and elsewhere to help patients and their caregivers deal with the possible effects of cancer and cancer treatment.  Be sure to visit the related links and pages to obtain necessary help.



Early Menopause

Chemotherapy and other cancer treatment drugs may slow or stop a woman's menstrual cycle. Some cancer treatments work by reducing the amount or activity of female sex hormones leading to menopausal symptoms.

Common signs of menopause include:

  • irregular periods
  • hot flashes; a feeling of intense heat often accompanied by sweating
  • problems with vagina and/or the bladder: tissues in these areas may experience drying and thinning which makes them prone to infection; urinary tract infections or difficulty holding urine may result
  • lack of interest in sex
  • vaginal dryness
  • fatigue and sleeping problems
  • memory problems, depression, mood swings, irritability

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For patients of reproductive age, it is important that they discuss fertility issues with their oncologist.  It is possible that the side effects of surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation may leave a patient infertile.  An oncologist can discuss option that patients may take before treatment to preserve their chances of having a child.  Sexually mature males can make deposits in a sperm bank, and prepubescent boys can have testicular tissue frozen to preserve sperm.  Fertility issues are more complex for females but it is possible to extract and freeze eggs and embryos.  For women, procedures must be specifically tailored to the patient and her needs.  It is important for all female patients with the potential and desire to bear children see a reproductive specialist before treatment begins. For more information visit the Emory Reproductive Center website. Other resources are available at

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Because chemotherapy and surgery can damage nerves, a patient who has undergone these procedures may experience pain in the form of tingling, burning, weakness, numbness, or sudden sharp, stabbing or electric shock pain. Many think that pain is an unavoidable byproduct of cancer and that they must just deal with it; however, pain can often be ameliorated with medication and/or physical therapy. Pain can almost always be relieved and every cancer survivor has a right to pain relief. Pain is associated with a higher level of anxiety in patients undergoing cancer treatment and unmanaged pain is a major risk factor for depression and suicide in cancer patients. Getting help for pain is not a sign of weakness. Because it is easiest to relieve pain when it is treated as early as possible, it is very important to contact a doctor as soon as pain begins to determine the best treatment method.

The goal of successful pain management is to decrease discomfort while increasing thinking ability, emotional wellbeing, and quality of life. Some patients may be worried that they may become addicted to pain medication but only a small proportion of patients become addicted to even the strongest pain medications (i.e. opioids and narcotics). Some of the side effects most commonly related to opioids include nausea, sleepiness, and constipation. Such side effects usually subside within a few days of beginning treatment.

Learn more about Winship's Cancer Pain Management Clinic and Supportive Oncology.

View new information on Palliative Care from the National Cancer Institute.

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Loss of Limb or Use

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Bladder and Bowel Control
It is common for patients treated for bladder, prostate, colon, rectal, ovarian and other cancers to have bladder and/or bowel control problems. Some pain medications may have the opposite effect and cause constipation.

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Almost everyone taking opioids has some constipation. This happens because opioids cause the stool to move more slowly through your system, so, your body takes more time to absorb water from the stool. The stool becomes hard. You can control or prevent constipation by taking these steps: 1) ask you doctor about giving you laxatives and stool softners when you take pain medication, drink plenty of liquids, eat foods high in fiber, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grain breads and cereals.  Exercise as much as you are able, such as light walking, will help.

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