Survivorship: Late Effects After Radiation for Liver Cancer

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

What is a late effect?

A late effect is as a side effect related to a cancer diagnosis or treatment that happens months to years after treatment. Some side effects that you develop during treatment can last for months to years after treatment is completed (for example, fatigue or neuropathy). These are often called long term side effects.

Late effects can be health issues or psychological, emotional and practical challenges. 

Late Effects After Radiation for Liver Cancer

Side effects from radiation treatment are directly related to the area of the body being treated. Any area in the treatment field has a risk of being damaged, causing side effects. As radiation techniques have improved over the years, the risk of late effects has decreased.

Liver Damage

Radiation to the liver may be necessary for cancer treatment but also can cause damage to areas of the liver that are healthy.

  • Your liver functions (LFT) will be measured by a blood test before and after treatment.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol; it can increase the risk of liver injury.
  • If you experience symptoms, including yellowing of the eyes and/or skin (jaundice), pain or swelling in your belly, itchy skin, and dark-colored urine contact your care team. You may need to be referred to a gastroenterologist for further evaluation.

Bowel Problems

The bowel is sensitive to the effects of radiation. The late effects that may occur after radiation including the rectum, colon, or small bowel include:

  • Scarring and strictures: Damage to the tissue of the bowel can lead to scar tissue. This scar tissue can lead to bowel obstruction. A bowel obstruction is when the normal movement of the bowel is blocked. Call your provider if you are having any abdominal pain, constipation, vomiting, weight loss or bloating. If you have severe abdominal pain along with vomiting and constipation you should be seen by a provider right away, either in the office or the emergency department.
  • Ulceration and bleeding: Ulceration and bleeding can be a side effect of damage to the bowel tissues. Report any bright red blood in your stools, toilet water, or on toilet paper, as well as dark black stools, to your provider right away.
  • Chronic diarrhea: Report diarrhea that is causing weight loss to your care team. Medications to lessen diarrhea may be helpful. You may benefit from meeting with a gastroenterologist. You should also meet with a registered dietitian who can help evaluate your diet and give you suggestions to lessen diarrhea and maintain or gain weight.
  • Fistula formation: A fistula is a connection (hole) between two parts of the body that are not normally connected. A fistula can form between the bowel and bladder, bowel and female reproductive system (uterus/ vagina), or the bowel and the skin. If you have urine, feces, or blood coming out of any opening that it should not be, you should call your provider right away.
  • Secondary colon cancer: Radiation to the bowel can lead to colon cancer years after treatment is complete. If you were treated as a child or adolescent, it is recommended to begin colon cancer screening with colonoscopy or DNA stool testing 5 years after treatment or at age 30, whichever occurs later. Screening for the general population begins between the ages of 45-50. You should consider these 2 guidelines when deciding when to start colon cancer screening. You may need earlier screening if you have irritable bowel disease, chronic diarrhea or bleeding, ulcerative colitis, colon cancer in your family or previous gastrointestinal cancers or polyps.

Stomach Problems

Indigestion and heartburn care be late effects of radiation to the stomach. You may also be at a higher risk for gastritis (irritation of the stomach wall), ulcers, and gastric outlet obstruction.

  • Symptoms include new or worsening belly pain, frequent vomiting or heartburn, or blood in your vomit or stool.  Call your care team right away if you experience any of these symptoms.
  • You may need a referral to a gastroenterologist to further evaluate your symptoms.
  • If you are having heartburn, your care team may prescribe medications to reduce the amount of acid being made or to coat/protect the stomach.

Skin Problems

Radiation can lead to permanent changes in the skin.

  • You may develop new scars or notice changes in the color or texture of your skin. Radiation can also change the color and texture of your hair or can cause permanent hair loss in the treated area.
  • The soft tissue and muscles under the skin can develop scarring and/or shrinkage, which can lead to a loss of flexibility and movement or chronic swelling in this area.
  • You may develop chronic or recurring ulcers of the skin in the area treated. Blood vessels of the skin may become dilated and more visible, although this is not harmful.
  • If the skin feels tight or sore, you can apply vitamin E to the skin.
  • Use fragrance and dye-free soaps and moisturizers in the area if your skin is sensitive after radiation.
  • After radiation, the skin in the treated area is more sensitive to sunlight. This sensitivity will last for your lifetime. Practice sun safety, using plenty of sunscreen, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and keep skin in the treated area covered with clothing. Try to avoid being out in the sun between the hours of 10 am-4 pm when it is the strongest.

If you notice any new or worsening skin issues anywhere on your body, you should contact your provider for an assessment.

Managing Late Effects

If you experience any concerning or persistent symptoms, contact your care team. Some side effects require specialized care from healthcare providers experienced in working with cancer survivors.

Interdisciplinary survivorship clinics are available at many cancer treatment sites. If a clinic is not available near you, talk with your oncology care team about resources for managing your late effects.

After treatment, talk with your oncology team about receiving a survivorship care plan, which can help you manage the transition to survivorship and learn about life after cancer. You can create your own survivorship care plan using the OncoLife Survivorship Care Plan.

References

Children’s Oncology Group. (2018). Colorectal cancer: are you at risk? Retrieved 27 June 2019 from: http://www.survivorshipguidelines.org/pdf/2018/English%20Health%20Links/10_colorectal_cancer%20(secured).pdf

Feuerstein, M., & Nekhlyudov, L. (2018). Handbook of Cancer Survivorship, 2nd. Ed. Springer,  https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-77432

Gulliford, S. L., Murray, J. R., & Ebert, M. A. (2019). Pelvis: Rectal and Bowel Toxicity. In Modelling Radiotherapy Side Effects (pp. 75-112). CRC Press.

Koontz, B. F. (2017). Radiation Therapy Treatment Effects: An Evidence-based Guide to Managing Toxicity. Springer Publishing Company.

Nakajima, T., Ninomiya, Y., & Nenoi, M. (2018). Radiation-Induced Reactions in the Liver—Modulation of Radiation Effects by Lifestyle-Related Factors—. International Journal of Molecular Sciences19(12), 3855.

Nelson, A., Mann, M., & Staffurth, J. (2019). Methods of assessing late radiotherapy effects on bowel function. Current Opinion in Supportive and Palliative care13(2), 134-141.

Wei, J., Meng, L., Hou, X., Qu, C., Wang, B., Xin, Y., & Jiang, X. (2018). Radiation-induced skin reactions: Mechanism and treatment. Cancer Management and Research11, 167–177. https://doi.org/10.2147/CMAR.S188655

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