Will cancer treatment affect my hair, skin, and nails?

Many patients experience changes to their skin, hair and nails during and after treatment for cancer. Read on for some suggestions that may help you with issues like dry skin, hair loss, or brittle nails.

What should I know about skin care during chemotherapy?

Healthy skin is essential for our physical well-being. Remember that our skin is our largest organ and protects us from many of the germs and elements that can be harmful to our health.

The most common problem for patients during and after chemotherapy therapy is dry, itchy and even scaly skin. Dry, irritated and sensitive skin may lead to eczema, itching, and sores that can become infected. There are some ways to manage these conditions by changing and or adding a few simple steps to your daily routine.

  • Drink plenty of water to hydrate (if you have not been told to limit how much fluid you take in).
  • Use only products that are gentle on your skin. These are products that do not have strong fragrances or irritating ingredients.
  • Use warm, not hot, water when bathing or showering.
  • If your skin is extremely dry, flaking or scaling, use a soft washcloth to gently cleanse and exfoliate skin. However, do not do this on areas of skin that are irritated or broken open. If you are having radiation, do not do this on your treatment area.
  • Blot your skin dry—do not rub.
  • Always apply a deeply hydrating moisturizer right after you dry off. Applying lotion when your skin is damp helps it absorb better.
  • Try a moisturizer that contains ceramides such as CeraVe® or Curel® or organic oils such as coconut, sesame or olive oils.
  • Apply a moisturizer a few times throughout the day if possible, including after you wash your hands and before you go to bed.
  • Protect your skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF of 30 or higher any time you are outdoors or are in direct sunlight.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours if you are in direct sunlight, in water or sweating heavily.

What should I know about skin care during radiation therapy?

Your skin may be affected when you receive radiation therapy. You may have one or more of these symptoms:

  • Reddening (known as erythema)
  • Swelling and inflammation
  • Dryness
  • Flakiness
  • Itchiness
  • Hair loss in the area being treated
  • Blistering
  • Changes in the color of your skin (your pigmentation)

Skin reactions to radiation therapy can vary depending on several factors. You should discuss these reactions with your radiation oncologist. It is best to begin caring for your skin when treatments begin and continue until you are completely healed.

Skin cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Although the main cause of skin cancer is the sun, sunlamps and tanning booths can also cause skin cancer. Anyone can get cancer, but people with fair skin that freckles easily are at greatest risk. You may be at greater risk for skin cancer if you have already been diagnosed with cancer.

What should I know about hair loss and cancer treatment?

Hair loss or thinning can happen with some chemotherapy treatments; the reason this happens is because chemotherapy affects all the cells in the body, not just the cancer cells. Here is some useful information about possible hair loss:

  • Hair loss may begin as early as the second or third week after the first cycle of chemotherapy.
  • Hair loss can be sudden or slow.
  • Some patients lose all of their hair while others lose just some.
  • It is common to lose hair in places other than your head. Treatment may affect nails, eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair.
  • It is common to lose hair in clumps, which can be overwhelming. Many people prefer to cut their hair short or shave their heads at the first sign of hair loss.

There are options to consider during hair loss. Many people choose to wear hats, scarves or wigs. Others prefer not to cover up the hair loss. It is entirely a matter of personal preference. However, it is important to use some form of protection for your scalp when you are outside. This could be a covering like a hat or scarf, or sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Hair regrowth

Hair regrowth is common between six months to one year after you complete chemotherapy. Regrowth occurs at a rate of approximately one quarter inch every 30 days. Growth depends on your nutritional status, diet, and stress level. More than 50% of patients with chemotherapy-induced hair loss report changes in color, texture and density of hair when it grows back.

Tips for healthy hair and scalp

  • Be gentle to your hair. Do not use any chemicals that may cause damage to the hair fibers and cause additional hair loss. Do not color, bleach, or perm your hair during the initial regrowth stage.
  • You can use a permanent or semi-permanent hair color when your hair is totally regrown and shows no significant signs of shedding.
  • If there is a question of whether or not growth is stable, use a semi-permanent color or tint. These products do not contain harsh chemicals that allow color to penetrate. They only coat the hair follicle.
  • Moisturize your scalp by using a conditioner. Even if you have lost your hair, you can apply a gentle conditioner in the bath or shower. Leave the product on for 30 seconds and then rinse with warm water.
  • Many people try castor oil to promote healthy hair regrowth of the scalp, lashes and brows. If you do this, use organic castor oil and know that results may vary.

What should I know about nail care during cancer treatment?

Caring for your nails is important during treatment to prevent getting an infection. Chemotherapy can affect your nails as well as your skin and hair. Some chemotherapy treatments contain taxanes. These chemicals, frequently used for breast, prostate and lung cancers, are commonly associated with nail changes. These changes may include:

  • Dryness
  • Brittleness
  • Discoloration
  • Lines or ridges in the nails. These will grow out when your chemotherapy is complete.
  • Loose nails that may even fall off

While you are being treated, you should:

  • Always tell your doctor if a nail falls off or is causing you pain.
  • Avoid professional manicures and pedicures.
  • Wear protective gloves when using cleaning products or yard work to prevent infection.

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