Surviving Cancer

Other Physical Changes

Some survivors experience other side effects related to their treatment that may include swelling, problems with their mouth and teeth, changes in their weight, and bladder and bowel problems.

Lymphedema (Swelling)

Swelling, called lymphedema, occurs when lymph fluids build up just under the skin. It can occur after radiation or surgery to treat any type of cancer. It is most often associated with treatment of breast cancer, melanoma, prostate cancer, lymphoma, and cancers of the female or male reproductive organs.

Lymphedema most often occurs in the arms and legs, but it can happen in other parts of the body including the face, neck, abdomen, and genitals. Other conditions, such as heart disease, also can cause these symptoms.

Symptoms of Lymphedema

Symptoms of lymphedema include

  • swelling or a heavy feeling in an area like your arm, leg, or abdomen
  • a tight feeling in the skin
  • or an itching or burning feeling in the legs.

If you experience any of these symptoms, tell your doctor. The chance of improving lymphedema is better if treatment begins early.

Lymphedema: Tips for Preention or Relief

Here are some things that might help prevent or relieve lymphedema.

  • Watch for signs of swelling or infection (redness, pain, heat, and fever). Tell your doctor if your arm or leg is painful or swollen.
  • Avoid getting cuts, insect bites, or sunburn in the affected area.
  • Keep your skin clean and use lotion to keep it moist.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing on your arms and legs.

The goal of lymphedema treatment is to control the swelling and to keep other problems from developing or getting worse. Your doctor may suggest keeping your arm or leg raised above your chest for periods of time, wearing compression bandages, or special types of massages. Under a doctor's guidance, some forms of exercise may also help control lymphedema.

Mouth and Teeth Problems

Many cancer survivors develop problems with their mouth or teeth. Radiation or surgery to the head and neck can cause problems with your teeth and gums, the lining of your mouth, and glands that make saliva. Certain types of chemotherapy can cause the same problems as well as dry mouth, cavities, and a change in the sense of taste.

Mouth and Teeth Problems: Tips for Prevention or Relief

The advice to help prevent and relieve mouth and teeth problems is the same for cancer survivors as for people who have not had cancer. Brush your teeth and gums after every meal and at bedtime, and floss your teeth daily. If you have dentures, clean them after every meal and have them checked to make sure they fit well.

Another tip is to avoid foods that may irritate your mouth. For example, sharp or crunchy foods such as chips could scrape or cut your mouth. Foods that are spicy or high in acid, such as citrus fruits and juices, tobacco products, and alcoholic drinks also can bother your mouth.

Weight Loss or Weight Gain

Many cancer patients experience changes in their weight during treatment. Among survivors, weight gain is a more common issue than weight loss. Certain kinds of chemotherapy and medicines contribute to this problem.

Sometimes the added pounds stay on even when treatment ends. Breast cancer survivors who received certain types of chemotherapy gain weight in a different way -- they may even lose muscle and gain fat tissue. Unfortunately, the usual ways people try to lose weight may not work for them.

What Your Doctor May Recommend

If you are having trouble losing weight after treatment ends, ask your doctor about talking with a nutritionist who can help you plan a healthy diet. Your doctor may suggest exercises that can help you regain muscle tone. Stay positive and focus on the fact that treatment is over and you are trying to get stronger.

Some cancer survivors have no desire to eat and they lose weight. To improve your appetite, focus on making foods more appealing to eat. Try the foods you liked before treatment and add some fruit or flavorings to improve the taste. Several small meals throughout the day may be easier to manage than three larger ones. Making meals an enjoyable social event can also help with appetite.

Bladder and Bowel Problems

Bladder and bowel problems are among the most upsetting issues people face after cancer treatment. People often feel ashamed or fearful to go out in public because they worry about having an "accident." This loss of control can happen after treatment for bladder, prostate, colon, rectal, ovarian, or other gynecologic or abdominal cancers.

Some surgeries to treat cancer may leave a patient with little or no bladder or bowel control. The opposite problem can happen with some medicines that cause constipation. For some people, the problems improve over time. Other people may experience these issues long-term.

What May Help

It is very important to tell your doctor about any changes in your bladder or bowel habits. Several things may help, such as medications, changes in diet or fluid intake, and exercises. Joining a support group also may be helpful, especially for survivors who have an ostomy (an opening in the body to pass waste material).