Skin Care During Cancer Treatments

A common concern when undergoing cancer treatment is the effect on skin. Here are some self-care ideas to boost healing.

The basis of prevention and repair for the skin is nutrition.The basis of prevention and repair for the skin is nutrition.
When undergoing cancer treatment, whether that’s chemotherapy or radiation or a combination of both, skin problems often occur as a side effect. Radiation treatments produce sunburn-like effects: redness, burning, itching, and sometimes blistering and peeling. The effects of chemotherapy on the skin can vary widely including flushing, hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin), nail changes, photosensitivity, rash, breakdown of the skin inside the mouth and gastrointestinal tract, but can be just limited to extremely dry skin.

What can be done to help prevent these reactions or at least decrease the severity of them? The basis of prevention and repair is nutrition. The skin, as with all other body systems, needs the proper fuel to maintain, repair, and rebuild after damage. Here are four nutritional recommendations to help keep your skin healthy.

Healthy Fats

All cell walls, including skin cells, are made up of fat. There are different types of fats and these need to be in proper balance to maintain the integrity of the cell. You may have heard of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, the “good fat” found in fish, nuts, and seeds such as flax seed. Most Americans are deficient in Omega-3s. Current recommendations call for eating cold water fish, like salmon, twice weekly.

I also recommend taking cod liver oil (lemon flavored-it’s not bad, really) every day. This helps to keep the skin hydrated and in healthy repair. There is a word of caution with higher doses of cod liver oil. It does tend to thin the blood, meaning that you are more likely to bleed if you are also taking medications or chemotherapy that promote blood thinning.

However, most people can actually benefit from this effect: it allows your blood to flow more freely through your arteries. Check with your doctor for clarification before starting with higher doses of cod liver oil.

Good Bacteria

Three-quarters of the immune system resides in the gut and bacteria are responsible in large part for maintaining the proper functioning of the immune system. Chemotherapy or radiation treatments, along with antibiotics and other medications can disturb this delicate balance.

Taking a probiotic is essential to help maintain the immune system. Another word of caution: if your immune system is severely compromised from chemotherapy, check in with your doctor before starting a probiotic supplement. A good probiotic supplement will contain at least 1 billion colonies and more than one strain of bacteria.

Hydration

Water is the life blood of our bodies. All cells “swim” in a version of water and contain a version of water within them. Adequate hydration is crucial in allowing cells to communicate with each other and get their work done. Cells do not function well without a proper amount of water.

Drinking, much less eating, can be a challenge if you are experiencing nausea and/or vomiting. However, in general, the more you can drink the healthier your skin will be. There is some controversy over how much water we need each day.  It is likely different for each individual, but eight glasses of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages a day is a good start. For example, the need will increase if the weather is hot or you sweat a lot. Don’t wait until you are thirsty before you start drinking.

Protein

Protein is the main building block for tissues in the body.  When you have undergone treatments that damage all cells, cancerous as well as healthy cells, the body needs the right tools for repair.  You will require an increased amount of protein during this period.

One way to increase protein intake is to drink a protein shake. There are many varieties out on the market. Many of them are not healthy alternatives. Look for those made of rice and pea protein. They are the least likely to promote sensitivities. Protein drinks are an easy way of getting a good dose of protein without the bulk that may increase nausea.

There are a number of topical treatments that may be helpful to treat skin issues that may occur during your cancer treatments. Here are a few suggestions:

Moisturize

Often healthcare professionals will recommend petroleum based products to help the skin retain moisture. I prefer some alternatives not made from petroleum, such as shea butter or coco butter. These provide thicker coverage than lotions but allow the skin to breathe as well.

Avoid Chemicals

Avoiding harsh soaps, detergents, shampoos, and household cleaners goes a long way to preventing irritation. Also, avoid anything with parabens or other preservatives as some of the substances have been linked with hormonal disturbances.  Wear gloves when using any cleaner at all, even the more natural alternatives.

Use Aloe

Aloe has a wonderful protective and healing effect on the skin outside your body and even on the gastrointestinal tract. Although no current studies support the solo use of aloe for skin repair in cancer treatments, there are some great formulations made specifically for skin care during cancer treatments. Again, make sure these are free of chemical additives. Aloe gel can also be taken internally to help soothe irritated linings of the mouth, stomach and intestines.

Being able to manage skin care during cancer treatment will give you a sense of control and self-confidence during a time when so much else seems out of control.

Further Information

  • More information about skin care, during and after radiation, can be found on the Mayo Clinic website
  • More information about skin care during chemotherapy can be found on the Chemocare website

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