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Cancer Complications

Cancer complications can be painful, inconvenient, life-changing and even fatal.

Bodily pain is one complication of cancer. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Bodily pain is one complication of cancer.

Cancer Complications

Depending on the patient's health and the stage of the tumor, cancer complications can be painful, inconvenient, life-changing and even fatal. Because of this, many of the adjuvant therapies and alternative remedies for cancer focus on reducing its complications and the physical and emotional distress they cause. Among the most common cancer complications are depression, fatigue, pain, sleep disorders and metastasis. Treating these complications not only improves a patients quality of life, but may increase the chances of survival.

Mental and Emotional Complications of Cancer

In general, cancer patients are at an increased risk for developing mood disorders like anxiety and major depression. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), many patients naturally experience anxiety, sadness and grief in response to cancer diagnosis and treatment. When these feelings interfere with the ability to undergo treatment or lead a productive life, however, the patient may have developed a mood disorder that requires professional treatment. The NCI also reports that cancer patients may be at an increased risk for suicide; some statistics suggest cancer patients are anywhere from two to 10 times more likely to commit suicide than members of the general population.

Psychotherapy, support group therapy and antidepressant medication can often help cancer patients struggling with anxiety or depression to manage their moods and lead relatively normal lives. Patients who experience overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, worthlessness, hopelessness or despair should talk with a doctor about the symptoms and potential treatment of these complications.

Physical Complications of Cancer

One of the main physical complications of cancer is pain. As a tumor grows, it may spread into the surrounding tissues or put pressure on a nearby nerve, causing the patient to feel pain. According to a guide published by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, this pain falls into three main categories:

  • Visceral pain (pain caused by damaged organ tissue)
  • Somatic pain (pain affecting a specific area of the muscle, bone or skin)
  • Neuropathic pain (pain caused by injury to the central nervous system)

Before pain associated with cancer can be treated, the doctor will need to know what kind of pain is present. After pinpointing its source, the doctor will recommend a course of treatment to help the patient manage the pain, which often includes medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and opioids (e.g., codeine, morphine and oxycodone).

Other physical complications of cancer include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pruritus (a sensation of itchiness)
  • Lymphedema (swelling caused by damage to the lymph nodes)
  • Malignant pleural effusion (fluid buildup in the lung cavity that makes breathing difficult)
  • Sexual issues, such as erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness
  • Hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood)

Some of these complications will improve after the patient receives treatment for the cancer, but others may require additional therapy or medication.


One of the most dangerous cancer complications is metastasis, or the spread of cancerous cells through the blood or lymphatic system from one area of the body to another. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, metastasis causes the majority of deaths related to cancer, predominately due to vital organs, such as the brain, bones, liver and lungs, being affected. Additionally, some cancers spread to certain areas of the body more often than others. For instance, prostate cancer often spreads to the pelvic bone, while breast cancer often spreads to the liver, lungs and brain. Although isolated tumors can often be removed with surgery, metastatic cancer is much more difficult to treat and effectively decreases the patient's chance of a complete recovery.

Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Although they may cure a patient's cancer, radiation and chemotherapy produce side effects that can significantly impact a patient's quality of life. Radiation therapy, which may be used to treat internal tumors and those on the skin, causes a variety of unpleasant short-term side effects, including hoarseness, throat pain and irritated skin. In some cases, the long-term side effects of radiation are much more serious. For example, radiation directed into the oral cavity may damage the salivary glands and jawbone, leaving patients with chronic dry mouth, a permanent tendency to develop cavities and jaw pain. Chemotherapy also has a variety of undesirable side effects, including hair loss, nausea and a weakening of the immune system. Fortunately, most of these are short-term complications and usually disappear after the patient finishes treatment.

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