Survivorship: Late Effects After Radiation for Sarcoma (Chest)

Author: Carolyn Vachani, MSN, RN
Content Contributor: Katherine Okonak, LSW
Last Reviewed: June 05, 2024

Side Effects After Cancer Treatment

There are different types of side effects you may have during or after cancer treatment.

  • Short-term: side effects that happen while you are on treatment and end shortly after treatment. Example: mouth sores that heal within a few weeks after treatment is finished.
  • Long-term: side effects that happen while you are on treatment and last for months to years. Some of these side effects will not go away. Example: neuropathy.
  • Late effects: side effects that happen months to years after you have finished treatment. Example: scar tissue forming and causing health issues.

This article focuses on the late effects of radiation treatment for sarcoma of the chest.

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

Late Effects After Radiation for Sarcoma (Chest/Chest Wall)

Side effects from radiation treatment affect the area of the body in the treatment field. The treatment field includes the cancer and in some cases nearby healthy tissue. The way radiation is given has changed over the years, leading to a lower risk of late effects. Talk with your radiation oncologist to find out which areas were in your treatment field.

Late effects of radiation treatment for sarcoma (chest) include:

Risk of Breast Cancer

Radiation therapy fields that include breast tissue can lead to breast cancer later in life. Because of this, the recommendations for breast cancer screening are different for you than for people who have not had chest radiation. 

  • Women who had radiation to the chest should have annual mammograms starting 8-10 years after radiation, or at age 40, whichever comes first. 
  • If you had radiation to the chest wall between the ages of 10 and 30, your mammograms may start earlier, and you may also need a breast MRI. 
  • Each case is unique, and you should talk to your provider about what tests you need and how often you should have them. 
  • Make sure that you are familiar with the normal feeling of your breasts. Tell your provider about any changes. Changes may be a new lump or mass, a change in the look and feel of the skin on your breast, or any discharge coming out of your nipple.
  • If you are a man who had radiation to the chest, you have an increased risk of getting breast cancer. There are no screening tests done for men who had chest radiation. However, you should tell your provider about any changes like lumps, skin changes, or nipple discharge.

Heart Problems

Radiation to the chest can affect the heart. Heart problems caused by radiation can include heart failure, high blood pressure, valve problems, and scarring or inflammation of the heart tissue.

  • The risk of heart failure depends on the amount of radiation you got, what other cancer treatments you had, and your heart health before treatment.
  • Your radiation treatment will be planned to avoid your heart as much as possible, but in some cases, it may be affected. You should have a yearly physical exam by your primary care provider. They should listen to your heart, check your blood pressure, look for signs of heart trouble like swelling in your legs/feet, and check your cholesterol and blood sugar levels with a blood test.
  • You should maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle, with regular exercise, not using tobacco, and eating a healthy diet.
  • If you are at a high risk for heart problems based on your treatments, your provider may want you to have an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) to look at your heart function before treatment.

Lung Problems

Radiation fields involving the lungs can lead to scar tissue (called fibrosis), inflammation (pneumonitis), and restrictive or obstructive lung disease. 

  • The risk for these problems is higher with higher doses of radiation, if you also got certain chemotherapies (bleomycin, busulfan, BCNU, and CCNU), or if you had part of the lung removed (lobectomy). 
  • Radiation can cause scar tissue in the lungs that may affect blood vessels. Damage to the blood vessels can lead to coughing up blood. If you cough up blood, you should be seen by a healthcare provider right away, either in the office or the emergency room. 
  • At your yearly visit, your provider will examine your lungs and ask about symptoms (cough, shortness of breath, wheezing). 
  • You should get a flu vaccine every year and the pneumococcal vaccine. 
  • You should avoid smoking, secondhand smoke, vaping, and hookah products, as these can cause further lung damage.

Nerve Damage

Survivors who got radiation to the chest/chest wall may have nerve damage. This damage is caused by scar tissue in the area pressing on the nerves or stopping the blood supply to nearby muscles.

  • Radiation injury to the nerves and muscles is sometimes called radiation fibrosis syndrome. It develops in the years after treatment and slowly worsens over time.
  • Symptoms can include pain, loss of strength, decreased feeling (sensation), loss of coordination, or loss of movement or function of the muscle. The area affected will depend on the area that was in the radiation field.
  • In rare cases, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be affected. The ANS controls things you don’t think about, like blood pressure and bowel and bladder control. ANS dysfunction can cause lightheadedness, fainting, extreme constipation, urinary incontinence (loss of control of urine), and erectile dysfunction (trouble getting or keeping an erection).
  • If you have any of these symptoms, tell your provider. Some of these things can be caused by other health issues, so your provider will need to determine the cause.
  • If radiation fibrosis is the cause, it may help to see a cancer rehabilitation physician or physiatrist, and physical or occupational therapists. These specialists can help you manage your symptoms with therapy, medications, and assistive devices. 

Spinal Cord Damage

The spinal cord may be in the field of radiation treatment. This can cause damage to the nerves in the spine.

  • Signs of this can include loss of strength, feeling, or coordination of the arms or legs, paralysis (not being able to move), or problems with bowel or bladder control. Sometimes nerve damage can cause a feeling of electric shock down the arms or legs.
  • If you have any of these issues, you may need imaging tests or to be seen by a neurologist for more testing.

Radiation can also cause damage to the bones of the spine. This can cause you to be shorter or have a change in the curve of your spine. Radiation to these bones can also put them at risk for fracture (breaks). If you have any new back pain, call your provider right away. You may need x-rays or other imaging tests.

Skin Changes

Radiation can lead to changes in the skin that don’t go away.

  • You may find new scars or changes in the color or texture of your skin. Radiation can also change the color and texture of your hair or can cause hair loss that never grows back in the treated area.
  • The soft tissue and muscles under the skin can cause scarring and/or shrinkage, which can lead to a loss of flexibility and movement or chronic swelling in the area treated.
  • You may get chronic or recurring ulcers of the skin in the area treated. Blood vessels of the skin may become dilated (larger) and more visible, but this is not harmful.
  • If the skin feels tight or sore, you can put vitamin E on 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, use plenty of sunscreen, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and keep skin in the treated area covered with clothing. Try to not be 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, you should contact your provider for an assessment.

Managing Late Effects

Tell your care team about any new or worsening symptoms. Some side effects need care from healthcare providers who specialize in working with cancer survivors. There are interdisciplinary survivorship clinics at many cancer centers. If there is not a survivorship clinic near you, talk with your oncology care team about support for managing your late effects.

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

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Feuerstein, M., & Nekhlyudov, L. (2018). Handbook of Cancer Survivorship, 2nd. Ed. Springer

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

Stubblefield, Michael Dean. (2017). Neuromuscular complications of radiation therapy. Muscle & Nerve, 56(6), 1031–1040.

Taunk, N. K., Haffty, B. G., Kostis, J. B., & Goyal, S. (2015). Radiation-Induced Heart Disease: Pathologic Abnormalities and Putative Mechanisms. Frontiers in Oncology, 5.

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 Research, 11, 167–177.

Yusuf, S. W., Venkatesulu, B. P., Mahadevan, L. S., & Krishnan, S. (2017). Radiation-Induced Cardiovascular Disease: A Clinical Perspective. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, 4.

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