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Skincare during Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy

Safe, healthy and effective skin care can be challenging with individuals experiencing the side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and other forms of treatment for cancer. The skin, being the largest organ of the body is a reflection of what is going on both internally and externally. For those on cancer treatment, management of skin reactions and side effects is an important component to getting through the treatment process as comfortably as possible.

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Chemotherapy Skincare

The key is to be gentle with the skin. Keep your skin as moist as possible during your chemotherapy treatment, and avoid raw and broken skin. Obviously, if you find a particular product or ingredient to be irritating to your skin, discontinue its use.

When you look good, you'll feel better!

Use:

  • gentle facial or sensitive skin cleansers
  • sun block, if you're going out in the sun
  • mineral makeups to block UV rays and improve your appearance
  • chirally correct products to minimize skin irritation

Avoid:

  • acidic or alkaline cleansing products
  • alcohols
  • perfumes and colognes
  • fabric softeners
  • products containing sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Retin-A and Retinol-based products Benzyl peroxide and other topical acne preparations.
  • Alcohols, astringents, and anything that dries the skin
  • Metals, which are often found in newer skincare products Alpha and beta hydroxy acids and other peeling agents
  • Dermabrasion and other skin resurfacing products
  • Certain botanicals common to skincare products such as arnica, ginseng, menthol, tea tree, camphor, eucalyptus, wintergreen, and others that are known irritants
  • All natural or unpreserved products. (Individuals on treatment with low white cell count are well served by the protection that an appropriate preservative system offers)
  • Harsh and abrasive cleansing and exfoliating products including salt scrubs, sugar scrubs, loofahs, pumice stones, and other exfoliating products or devices

Our skin plays a vital role in our overall health. Physically, it shields and protects us. And, because it is the most visible part of us, our skin has a powerful psychological effect on us and our neighbors. Scientific studies are proving that when people feel better about the way they look, it boosts their immune system for up to three hours. People around us react more positively, as well.

Moisturizers will help combat skin dehydration and will make the skin's surface softer, more pliable and less itchy. It's also best to avoid long, hot showers, perfumes or cologne.

Sun protection is especially important for cancer patients. Chemotherapy can photosensitize the skin, so it's best to stay out of the sun altogether, if possible. Otherwise, we recommend products with Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide which provide a physical block to the sun's rays. The titanium dioxide and zinc oxide may also help with skin irritation and itching.

Cancer patients get a double-negative effect from their illness and its accompanying treatment. The immune system is compromised by chemotherapy, which in turn, impairs the skin's function. One common side effect is hair loss. Although temporary, hair loss is usually cited as the most devastating side effect. It's the first sign to outsiders that something is wrong, and to the patient it's a constant reminder of the disease.

We recommend to our clients who are about to undergo chemotherapy to start looking for a wig before the treatments begin. They will have more energy for the search and will have their wig before they begin to loose their hair. A stylish hat or a beautiful head scarf is another accessory that they can add to their wardrobe. Incidentally, not everyone loses hair during chemotherapy.

In addition to possible hair loss, chemotherapy may make the skin drier because the drugs interfere with the normal function of the oil and sweat glands. Possible side effects include redness, itching, peeling and dryness. Cracking and chapping can lead to infection in the cancer patient whose immune system is suppressed - a potentially dangerous combination.

Skin should be kept as moist as possible during treatment. Cancer patients are advised not to share their skin and body care products with anyone because of the danger of infection. All skin treatments should be soothing and hydrating, with absolutely no extraction's, abrasives, or peeling agents. In an immuno-suppressed client, an extraction could turn into an infection.

We recommend moisturizing day and night to slow down the skin's trans-epidermal water loss. Also, remember that the skin absorbs about 60% of what's put on it. Typically, toxins are stored in our fatty tissues and tend to remain there. It's always wise to read ingredient labels; this is especially important when healing.

The overall objective is to replace the skin's natural oils which are in short supply in chemotherapy patients. This will help heal the "micro-cracks" in dry, irritated skin. When the skin is moist, supple and healthy, it can perform its primary protective function much better, and keep infection out of the body. Also, when you look better, you'll feel better, and that's a key component to a healthy immune system and a full recovery.

Radiation Therapy Skincare:

One of the most common side effects of radiation therapy is skin irritation in the area of the body that is being treated. The skin reaction can range from very mild redness and dryness (similar to a sunburn) to severe desquamation (peeling) of the skin in some rare patients. With modern radiation techniques, many patients can be spared significant symptoms related to the skin. There are, however, some instances where treatment to the skin is required.

Always let your nurse or doctor know if your skin is becoming irritated. Most patients start with some redness and dryness to the skin 2-3 weeks into treatment. This can progress to peeling and ultimately moist desquamation with oozing of fluid in the area. There are effective topical medications available for radiation induced skin irritation. Typically the nurses in the radiation oncology department are the most experienced in dealing with skin reactions. There are some rare instances where radiation therapy must be placed on hold to allow for some skin healing, but this is a decision that must be made by the treating oncologist.

Skin reactions can be magnified in those patients who are receiving chemotherapy along with radiation therapy. There is also a reaction known as the "radiation recall phenomenon" that can occur with specific chemotherapy agents, particularly Adriamycin. In this phenomenon, skin may completely heal after the radiation treatments only to have the same skin reaction occur some time later with the start of Adriamycin therapy.

There are some precautions that patients can take to minimize skin irritation during radiation treatments:

  • Only wash the skin in the treatment area with mild soaps.
  • Use a mild shampoo, if the head is being treated.
  • When using a towel, pat the area dry instead of rubbing.
  • If you must shave in the treated area, use an electric razor to prevent cuts.
  • Avoid using shaving lotions or scented creams.
  • Do not use perfumes, deodorants, or makeup in the treated area.
  • Always check with your nurse or doctor before using creams or lotions on the skin. Samples of safe topical medications are usually available in the radiation clinic.
  • Avoid using heating pads and ice packs on the skin in the treated area.
  • Use only paper tape with dressings applied to the treated area.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing that does not rub on the skin in the radiated area.
  • Avoid sun exposure in the treated area (i.e., use hats, thick clothing, umbrellas, etc.).
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