Your skin is dry as a lizard’s. Your fingernails are disintegrating. Your skin is turning different colors. Don’t be surprised if your treatment causes some temporary changes to your skin and nails. The good news is that they won’t last forever and in the big scheme of things, this is one of the easier things to deal with.

Why is my skin affected?

Chemotherapy destroys “rapidly dividing cells” and your skin cells are innocent by-standers randomly affected by the chemo drugs. You may have dryness, redness, itching or slight skin color changes (slightly darker along the veins used for chemo). Radiation can also cause skin changes that can last for several weeks after treatment. Unlike chemo that tends to affect your skin overall, the effects of radiation are limited to the areas that were treated. Your skin in those areas may become dry, itchy and red. “Radiation recall” is a reaction that sometimes happens if you also have chemo. The area that received the radiation may turn red, blister and peel. Make sure you tell your doctor or nurse about this. If your skin starts to itch or you develop hives or a rash, you may be having an allergic reaction to a new drug. Tell someone immediately because there might be a different drug to use or a medication to help prevent the reaction in the future. You might also notice changes to your nails. They may become darkened, yellow, brittle or cracked. Again, these changes will probably be only temporary.

What can I do about it?

First, when buying skin care products – deodorant, razors, lotions, moisturizers, make-up, soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, etc. – try to find ones for “sensitive skin”. Then, try these tips.

For very dry skin:

  • Use a gentle soap (ask your nurse for recommendations).
  • Use hypoallergenic products with no artificial colors or fragrances than can irritate your skin.
  • Use a moisturizer daily (even though it feels a bit greasy Eucerin Moisturizing Crème is great on rough elbows, heels, and the soles of your feet.) Apply moisturizer right after you bathe while your skin is still a little wet. It will help to hold in some of the moisture.
  • Add baby oil to your bath water or squirt a little on a shower sponge.
  • Drink lots of fluids to keep your skin hydrated.
  • Avoid perfumes, after-shaves, or lotions that contain alcohol (very drying).
  • Try to stay cool to avoid sweating and losing more moisture from your skin. Steam baths and saunas are not a good idea!

If your face breaks out:

  • Keep your face clean and dry, washing frequently with a gentle cleanser. Use a fresh, clean towel to gently pat – not rub – your face dry.
  • Ask your doc or nurse about using over-the-counter medicated creams. Most are very drying (astringents) and will make your skin even dryer.
  • Keep your hands away from your face. This only causes more irritation and increases the chances of making your face dirty (washing your hands often is a good idea for lots of reasons)

For cracked, brittle, discolored nails:

  • Ask your nurse about using nail-strengthening products. They may irritate your skin, so be careful.
  • If you wear nail polish, don’t use polish remover with alcohol. Buy an oil-based product.
  • Keep your nails short. They will have less tendency to break and chip.
  • Use a moisturizer around your cuticles to prevent tearing and bleeding (tubes of lip balm work great for this!).

If your skin color changes:

  • There are only two things to do: cover or camouflage! If the pigment change is really obvious, long sleeves will hide it.
  • Some girls use make-up to blend the lighter and darker areas, making them less noticeable. Just be sure to use a hypoallergenic product.

Just remember….

Even with all the visible exterior changes your body is going through, inside you are still the same old you. That will never change – no matter what.