Effects of Cancer: Learn the consequences of this disease
Cancer isn’t easy and everyone who comes across it is affected greatly by it in one way or another. Almost everyone feels chronic fatigue, while some may also feel significant depression and anxiety or even feel that their bodies have completely warped from what they once knew. What are the general effects of cancer? What are the effects on the body, on our cognitive state, and on our emotions? What are the effects of cancer treatment? What are ways to better manage the effects of cancer?
What are the effects of cancer?
After cardiovascular diseases, cancer is the second largest cause of death around the world. Within the United States alone, half of the male population and a third of the female population will develop some form of cancer within their lifetimes. Each form of cancer carries with it multiple side effects. Whether the effects of cancer are physical, emotional, or cognitive, each effect can affect your quality of life. The most common effect is constant fatigue that doesn’t go away no matter how much you sleep or rest.
The history of cancer starts with the Greek word karkinos which was used to describe carcinoma tumors that were found by a physician, Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.). However, Hippocrates wasn’t the first person to discover the cancerous phenomena. The earliest evidence was found in Ancient Egypt with mummies with bone cancer from about 1600 B.C. In 1500 B.C., the world’s oldest case of breast cancer was found- again in Ancient Egypt. According to ancient manuscripts, there was no treatment for the cancers, only a palliative treatment. However, they removed surface tumors in a very similar way that we do today.
What are the effects of cancer on the body?
Fatigue is one of the biggest effects of cancer on the body. While the effects of cancer changes from person to person, everyone will feel extremely fatigued at one point or another- especially when they go through cancer treatment. Fatigue is extreme tiredness that doesn’t go away with sleep or rest. Fatigue can happen due to a number of reasons concerning cancer. For example, the emotional and other physical side effects of the diagnosis and treatment, or a condition such as anemia which affects the red blood cell count.
Body changes are effects of cancer that can be caused by various factors such a radiotherapy and chemotherapy. This isn’t an uncommon reaction whether or not your body has actually physically changed or not. These changes can be permanent or temporary and will change how one feels about themselves such as their self-esteem and their self-consciousness will probably heighten. People who feel a change in body image often feel less confident.
Appetite changes are normal effects of cancer when your body doesn’t feel well, or it feels depressed or anxious- especially due to the physical effects of chemotherapy. Some eat more while others eat less- it depends on the person. To further the changes, a change in appetite can make one feel more distressed than they were feeling prior.
Changes in sexual interest. Effects of cancer include sexual organs and can subsequently affect one’s ability to become aroused. Low libido can occur when your normal hormone balance is thrown off or when you feel depressed. Sometimes it can happen because you’re too preoccupied thinking about cancer (or how it’s affecting your body) that you forget about sex altogether.
Fertility can be affected (temporarily or permanently) depending on the type of cancer and often with cancer treatments. This physical loss often turns into an emotional loss that involves devastation, depression, and anxiety. Even if you weren’t planning on ever having kids, the now lack of possibility can cause some distress.
What are the cognitive effects of cancer?
Considering that whatever happens in the body can also have an effect on the brain, cancer can affect the brain and the overall impact on well-being. Cancer has been linked to cognitive impairment. Many cancer patients struggle with attention, memory, and thinking problems for a number of different reasons. The majority of these reasons can be chalked up to:
- Chemotherapy is the biggest cause for chemo brain.
- Social issues– normal as with anyone who is undergoing big issues at home or with friends, their brains can get a big foggy and distracted.
- Brain cancer can be considered cancer that has spread to the brain or simply a brain tumor that isn’t benign.
- Medication such as antidepressants, hormone therapy, pain medication, immunotherapy, and anti-anxiety.
- Radiation therapy to areas of the body such as the neck or head.
- Brain surgery in parts of the brain that could have been damaged during the removal of a tumor.
- Nervous system disorders that are unrelated to the cancer
- Severe emotional responses such as depression, stress, and anxiety.
Effects of Cancer: What is Chemo Brain?
Chemo brain, also known as chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment, cognitive dysfunction, and chemo fog, is a term used by cancer patients and doctors to refer to issues in memory, attention, and concentration. It’s essentially a code word for mental fatigue that occurs in roughly 30% of chemotherapy patients. Chemo brain can happen to anyone and everyone before chemo treatment, during treatment (the most common), and after chemo treatment (the rarest). It’s most often reported with breast cancer patients with an estimated 17-50% of patients with chemo brain. However, its causes are unknown. It’s thought that the drugs used in chemotherapy might have a neurotoxic effect of cancer on the brain or that the drugs could indirectly start an immunological response that could, in turn, cause an inflammatory reaction within the brain. An inflamed brain can’t work at full speed. Some researchers believe that chemo brain has less to do with chemotherapy and more to do with cancer itself. They believe that cancer can change parts of the brain. One study found that women who went to a cognitive behavioral therapy session after their chemotherapy sessions had notable improvements in their verbal and executive functions compared to people who didn’t go to therapy after their chemo session. Age may also be a factor.
A study on mice found that the mice who underwent a chemotherapy session had 26% fewer living hippocampal neurons during the chemo sessions and 14% fewer hippocampal neurons three months after chemotherapy. Now, take into account that to a mouse, what we know to be three months is equal to 10 human years to them. What does that mean? It shows that chemo brain can affect us at least 10 years after the chemotherapy stopped.
What are the emotional effects of cancer?
People who experience the physical effects of cancer such as pain, nausea, and fatigue are also prone to experience emotional distress. It makes sense when you think about how much of a toll and burden pain, rather constant nausea, and being chronically tired can be on a human. Studies have proven that cancer care doctors often misinterpret a patient’s’ distress or their psychological disorder as often as 35% of the time. Check out the studies here and here.
Effects of Cancer Socially, having a supportive social network is essential while experiencing cancer. Therapists and group therapy can also be included under the term “social support”. A supportive environment can greatly relieve stress in a cancer patient. A lack of supportive environment has been proven to be associated with high levels of anxiety as well as an overall lower quality of life in the cancer patient. Here is another study on how anxiety, low life quality, and negative social environment can affect a cancer patient. Patients who don’t have solid emotional and social support have been shown to have a higher risk of committing suicide as well as an overall greater desire to die. However, cancer patients who were able to express themselves freely and communicate information well to family members felt less anxiety.
Effects of Cancer Psychologically, it’s been found that people who suffer from cancers that affect the reproductive organs (such as testicles, breasts, ovarian, etc.) might be more prone to question their sexual and social identities as a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’. This phenomena has been proven applicable to people of all ages, cultures, genders, and has little or nothing to do with their partnership status (e.x. Single, married, divorced, etc.). It’s thought that due to the fact that doctors often don’t discuss this type of issue with patients, they might not feel abnormal when concerned about their sex life and their sexuality.
Anxiety is a completely normal reaction to cancer considering that our anxiety levels go up when we feel a threat of any sort. This study shows that patients who are undergoing cancer treatment and who are not married are at a lot higher risk for anxiety than married patients. According to this study, roughly 48% of cancer patients have high levels of anxiety while 18% go through an anxiety disorder while seeking treatment for cancer. The study explains that people who suffer from anxiety at the time of cancer diagnosis, who feel severe pain, who have another advancing disease, and who lack social support are more prone to developing an anxiety disorder while undergoing cancer treatment.
Depression is hugely an emotional issue for cancer patients as well as their loved ones. It’s believed that between 16% and 25% of cancer patients develop depression after diagnosis. It’s more common in cancer patients than in the general population according to this study. And honestly, it makes complete sense. Sadly, doctors fail to identify and treat about 35% of these depression cases which means they are left untreated. The more advanced the cancer is, the more likely the patient is to have depression. However, it’s important to distinguish between the normal feelings of grief that one will feel due to the cancer diagnosis and depressive disorders. When diagnosed, if the patient is already suffering from depression, a lack of family support, and/or having lots of pain, there is an increased risk of depression according to this study, this study, and this study. If left undiagnosed, numerous studies (like this one and this one) have proven that depression can have negative effects on multiple health issues as well as make it more difficult for the patient to make important decisions about their treatment plan, slow down their recovery time, and increase their overall risk of death. A study on renal cancer patients and another two (here and here) on breast cancer patients both showed that the patients with depression have a lower survival rate than those who didn’t have depression with cancer.
What are the effects of cancer treatment?
While cancer is hard, cancer treatment can be harder- specifically due to the side effects. Chemotherapy and radiation are treatments that carry with them both short-term and long-term side effects. Chemotherapy uses radiation and drugs that travel throughout the body with the intention to kill off the bad (cancerous) cells. Chemotherapy carries with it a myriad of physical and cognitive side effects such as:
- Bleeding and bruising easily
- Changes in weight
- Changes in appetite
- Blood disorders such as anemia– a condition that is known for having a low blood cell count
- Changes with kidney, bladder, and urine control
- Mood swings
- Feeling the chills
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Hair loss
- Changes in nails and skin
- Intense headaches and migraines
- Becoming more prone to infections
- Chemo brain
- Extreme fatigue
- Sores and pain in the tongue, mouth, and throat known as mucositis
- Changing in libido and problems with sexual function
- Fertility issues
- Muscular and nerve issues such as numbness, pain, and tingling
Late effects of cancer treatment
Some effects of cancer treatment pop up months or years after the chemotherapy ended. These side effects are known as late effects. All cancer survivors- especially children who underwent chemotherapy- are especially prone to second cancers in life and developing late effects. Some common late effects include early menopause, chemo brain, muscle weakness, tingling, numbness, heart problems, bone problems, and chronic fatigue.
Tips to better manage the effects of cancer
- Learn about your cancer. One of the greatest things someone can do is to learn more about their (type of) cancer.
- Exercise daily. Try walking at least 30 minutes a day to help preserve muscles strength and reduce fatigue.
- Increase self-confidence by participating in activities and hobbies you like such knitting, sports, music, and crafts.
- Talk to your doctor honestly. Studies have proven that cancer care doctors often misinterpret a patient’s’ distress or their psychological disorder as often as 35% of the time.
- Join a support group. Patients who have joined support groups have psychological benefits, feel more able to manage side effects, have less anxiety and pain, feel more emotionally fulfilled, and may also extend the lives of cancer patients.
- Allow yourself time to adapt to a new body and a new person (who you are with and after cancer). Try to see yourself as a whole person and focus specifically on the mind, personality, and body rather than focusing on the parts of you that have changed.
- Try a sperm back or freezing your eggs if you’re worried about fertility issues later on.
- Take care of your dry and changing skin by using a mild soap and moisturizer while avoiding exfoliating ingredients that will take away the healthy oils secreted by the body.
- Eat well. Try eating a well-balanced diet to help your body cope well with energy levels and the chemo treatments.
- Match your real hair color by having your wig fitting before starting cancer treatment so the wig will match your real hair color and texture.
How has cancer affected you? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.