If you’ve been here with us for a while, you know that we spend a lot of time discussing skin conditions in depth. We’ve covered the ones you all know, such as eczema and psoriasis, and we’ve also delved into some less-familiar territory, including ichthyosis and prurigo of pregnancy. But, what about conditions that affect more than just the skin?
The number of reported cases of cancer grows every year, and is expected to grow by 1.7 million Americans in 2018 alone. While cancer has a high mortality rate, many cancer patients opt for chemotherapy to increase their chance of survival. Chemotherapy is invasive and brutal on the body. Plus, it can affect your skin and hair, changing your sensitivity levels over time. Let’s examine the relationship between chemo and your skin.
What is Chemotherapy?
As you probably know, chemotherapy is a cancer treatment procedure that uses drugs to kills the cancer cells. Chemo works to identify cells that grow and divide quickly, as cancer cells do. It works throughout your body; it’s not limited to a single area like surgery or radiation. However, it’s not without fault. Because chemo hunts for cells that multiply at a rapid pace, it may mistakenly kill off healthy cells. So, your hair cells, skin cells, and intestinal cells become collateral damage. But, we’ll discuss that more in depth later.
What Does Chemo Do?
In short, chemo attempts to kill the malignant cells by killing anything and everything that behaves like them. Anything beyond that depends on the type of cancer you have.
Best case scenario, chemotherapy cures your cancer. It destroys cancer cells until your doctor’s unable to detect them in your body. The hope is that, past this point, the cancer doesn’t come back. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
In other instances, chemo can help keep your cancer under control. Maybe it keeps a tumor from growing or malignant cells from spreading to other areas of the body. This isn’t a permanent solution; if this is the process you and your doctor choose, it may be a long-standing procedure for you.
Finally, chemotherapy also has the ability to ease symptoms. This is usually the case for people with severe cases of cancer. Chemo can help shrink tumors that cause pain or pressure, but the tumors typically grow back.
What are the Side Effects?
Like many drugs, chemotherapy comes along with a wealth of side effects. Here are just a few:
- Fatigue. You’ll feel weak, tired, and drained, both physically and emotionally.
- Hair loss. As hair follicles weaken, hair may fall out all over the body.
- Easy bruising and bleeding. As the skin thins and your sensitivity level rises, you may discover more cuts and scrapes than normal. If you find that you have unexplained bleeding and/or bruising on a consistent basis, we recommend letting your doctor know.
- Skin and nail changes. After chemo, you might see your skin become dry and your nails change in color.
- Nerve and muscle problems. You may experience numbing, tingling, and pain as a result of chemo.
- Mouth, tongue and throat issues. Sores and pain with swallowing may become common occurrences. However, keep an eye out for swelling in the mouth. If you experience sensations that feel like allergic reactions, let your doctors know right away.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
We could write dozens of posts on the chemotherapy process and still not have covered everything. In an effort to scratch the surface, let’s break down a few more things to know about chemo.
Chemotherapy can be administered to you in several different ways. First, there’s injection. This allows the drugs to be delivered into muscles. Usually, doctors will choose patients’ thighs, arms, or stomachs as potential injection sites. In the same vein (pun intended), we have the intravenous method, in which a doctor injects the drugs directly into a vein. There is also the intra-arterial method, which uses a catheter to feed the drugs directly into your bloodstream. The intraperitoneal method delivers the drugs into the cavity that houses your stomach and other vital organs, and is typically completed during surgery. And, finally, we have topical applications (rubbing a cream on your skin) and oral options (swallowing capsules containing the drugs).
We recommend working directly with your doctor to choose a method that’s right for you. Your options depend on the kind of cancer that you have, so be sure to take that into account, as well.
During the course of your cancer treatment, there may be times where chemotherapy alone isn’t enough. And, that’s okay. Everyone’s cancer is different, and doctors are here to support you. Depending on your case, your doctor can choose to give you a supplementary treatment to help improve your chances.
First up, we have the surgical route. In this instance, your doctor would remove cancerous tissues, tumors, or organs. They may also choose to remove tissue that is not yet infected, but is at risk for contamination.
Radiation therapy is also an option. Doctors who specialize in radiation therapy will use radioactive particles to eliminate cancerous cells. This is done by either using a special machine to bombard the body from the outside, or by placing radioactive substances near or even inside the patient themselves.
Lastly, biological therapy may help to reduce the level of cancerous cells in the body by using organic matter. Yes, that’s right. Essentially, your doctor will carefully introduce living material into your body in the form of vaccines, antibodies, or bacteria that naturally kill cancer cells.
How Does Chemotherapy Affect My Skin?
As we mentioned before, chemotherapy can mistakenly attack the skin cells while on the hunt for malignant cells. Damaged skin cells can result in skin reactions that vary from patient to patient. Some patients experience skin reactions at different points in their treatment, but these reactions usually occur between week two and week three of treatment. Skin issues that result from chemo can take up to six weeks to heal fully.
The most common skin reaction associated with chemo is dry skin. As the drugs damage the skin cells, they tend to suck all the hydration out of them, leaving behind dry, withered skin. The skin cells lowest layer on the surface of the skin will become flat and dry. You may experience mild scaling, itching, and roughness as a result. Moisturizer is a must, and if you’d like to go a step further, we suggest using an ointment. Ointments create a barrier on the surface of the skin. This protects you from outside irritants and helps lock in hydration.
Got temporary redness in the facial or neck areas? You’re flushing. Flushing occurs when blood capillaries are dilated, which quickly brings blood up to the surface of the skin. While this is just a temporary side effect of chemo, we do recommend sharing it with your doctor. Flushing has been connected to certain chemo drugs, so they may choose to change your treatment plan.
If you’re undergoing chemotherapy and you notice certain areas of the skin darkening in color, you’re not alone. Hyperpigmentation is a common side effect of chemo. It usually occurs around the nails, in the mouth, in the area where the drugs are administered, and on the knuckles on the tops of the fingers. In most instances, hyperpigmentation that is linked to chemo will resolve itself within 12 weeks. New skin cells will replace the dead ones, restoring your skin to its natural color.
We’ve discussed how your skin’s sensitivity levels will increase when undergoing chemo, and photosensitivity is part of that. You may experience rashes all over the body, not just the areas that were exposed to sunlight. We suggest using SPF each time you go out, avoiding tanning booths, and applying cool, wet dressings to any severe rashes you get.
This one goes along with photosensitivity in that it can look a lot like a sunburn. When certain chemotherapy drugs are given, redness can occur at the site. Radiation recall is one of those skin reactions that doesn’t always go away right away. In fact, the effects of radiation recall can last anywhere from eight days to 15 years after receiving treatment.
What Can I Do?
During chemotherapy and cancer treatment, a lot is up in the air. There’s a lot of wishing and waiting, and it’s hard to feel like there’s something you can do to make life easier for yourself. We’ve compiled some of our favorite ways to soothe your body and mind during this difficult time.
Protect Your Skin as Much as Possible
Many people who undergo chemotherapy experience dry skin. If left untreated, dry skin cracks, bleeds, and develops into more serious skin conditions, such as dermatitis and psoriasis. The key here is to moisturize! Keeping your favorite moisturizer close soothes your skin. We also think it allows you to take ownership of your appearance, giving you some control in a time full of unknowns.
Go Fragrance Free!
We all love a good scented skin care product. But, keep this in mind. Just because it smells amazing doesn’t mean your skin will appreciate it. We’ve discussed before that sensitive skin isn’t a fan of fragrance. In fact, many fragrances have high allergic reaction rates, and as you can imagine, that’s also the case for chemo patients.
Your skin is already at an increased level of sensitivity, so give it a little extra love. Our Fragrance Free Gentle Hydrating Cleanser is the perfect start. It’s recommended for normal to dry skin, and it deeply hydrates the skin with each use. By thoroughly cleansing the skin without drying it out, Gentle Hydrating Cleanser gives you all the hydration your skin needs and none of the irritation.
Even though our Fragrance Free Gentle Hydrating Cleanser moisturizes the skin, you can’t forget about lotion. Using a moisturizer after cleansing is critical! You’ll lock in all the hydration that our cleanser has given you, adding another layer of protection. Gentle Hydrating Cleanser’s perfect match? Fragrance Free Gentle Hydrating Lotion. Much like its cleanser/partner-in-crime, it’s completely free of scent. It’s also bursting with vital nutrients that protect the skin against harmful irritants. Finally, Gentle Hydrating Lotion is a favorite for those who suffer from tension and irritation of the skin. It also improves elasticity over time.
Take a Little Me-Time
Try as we might, we can’t imagine how stressful chemotherapy is, both physically and emotionally. All these swirling emotions, stress, and trauma wreak havoc on the skin. It may be hard to take time for yourself in times like these, but we think it’s critical. Meditate, color, listen to relaxing music! Plus, if you haven’t noticed, stress compounds. You stress about how much stress you have how how stressed you’re feeling, which leads to (you guessed it!) more stress. Do whatever you can to keep your stress level down as much as possible. And, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Your skin will thank you.
Chemotherapy can do a number on your skin, but we’re here to help. Sebamed’s products are all ultra-mild and provide soothing relief to even the most sensitive of skins. Our skin care is pH-balanced to the level of healthy skin, keeping your skin barrier strong. Dermatologists around the world rely on and recommend our wide range of cleansers and moisturizers for healthy skin every time. Check out our complete lineup here.