Late effects of cancer treatment

What is a late effect?

Cancer treatments can have long-term side effects (late effects), which appear years after treatment has finished. It can lead to health issues in survivors. Late effects may occur any time following treatment and throughout adulthood. 

Late effects will depend on types of treatments and the dose received. Like side effects that you may have during treatment, late effects differ greatly from person to person. 

When deciding on the best treatment program for a child, the risks and benefits of cancer treatments are carefully considered to minimise late effects.  

The first five years 

During the first five years after diagnosis, the main focus of the medical team is detecting early complications of therapy and checking for any signs that the disease is coming back.

This changes when a child passes the five-year mark, at which point the main focus shifts to identifying signs of any late effects of therapy. 

Physical late effects

Late effects involve changes to organs, tissues, and/or body functions. This may affect your child’s growth and development.

Some children who have been treated for cancer have many physical late effects, whereas others have few.

Talk with your child’s doctor about what to expect.

Emotional late effects

Late effects include changes to your child’s mood, feelings, and actions. Many children are resilient after cancer treatment. Others experience social and/or emotional problems.  
If your child is not sleeping well and no longer enjoys the activities they used to, it is important to talk with your child’s doctor about having your child evaluated for depression.

Some children develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • flashbacks about diagnosis or treatment
  • avoiding places that are reminders of the experience
  • scared, irritated, unable to sleep
  • difficulty concentrating.

Ask your child’s health care team to suggest mental health support and resources in your area.

Cognitive (mind) late effects

Late effects include changes in your child’s ability to memorise, learn, and think.

These types of late effects are more likely to occur in children who have had cancers such as brain and spinal cord tumours, head and neck cancers, and some types of leukaemia, such as ALL.

Treatments like radiation therapy to the head and certain types of chemotherapy also increase the risk of cognitive late effects.

These late effects are more likely in children who

  • were very young during treatment
  • received high doses of treatment
  • whose treatment lasted for a long time.
Last updated Wednesday 26th June 2024