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How Cancer Affects Your Hair, Skin, and Nails

by Carol R. Drucker, MD

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If your skin is dry, now is the time to carefully test out some pampering lotions.

One of the most common questions people have when diagnosed with cancer is “Will I lose my hair?” The answer for many is yes, but only temporarily. The loss and regrowth of hair during the cancer experience is usually due to chemotherapy treatment. Treatment can also have effects on the nails and the skin. The changes are usually temporary, but it helps to know what to expect. Hair loss occurs during some, but not all, chemotherapy treatments. With some treatments, essentially all scalp hair is lost. It starts to fall out within one or two courses of treatment. Many people cut their remaining hair very short once it starts to fall out. Others buy wigs or scarves before hair loss begins. Going with no covering is also widely accepted. However, many people find their scalp easily becomes cold and prefer the comfort of head coverings.

It helps to know that hair loss is a temporary condition for most people. The hair usually starts to regrow within a month or two of finishing treatment. Most people find that the new hair is a different type than they had before. If their hair was straight, it may come in curly, or if it was curly, it may now be straight. The color and texture may also be different. Many people enjoy the change. With time, however, you can expect your old locks to return. Although the hair frequently does not come back quite as thick as it originally was.

No special treatment is necessary to make the hair regrow. It will happen automatically. If it is OK with your doctor, you may want to take vitamin supplements, including B vitamins, since these are necessary for hair growth. It is also wise to pamper the newly growing hair. Don’t use harsh chemical treatments or pull the hairs into a tight hairdo.

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Dr. Carol Drucker

Any time the body is stressed, physically or mentally, the hair can fall out at an increased rate. This is another type of hair loss experienced by many people. Three months after surgery is when most people notice more hair falling out. This, too, is temporary. The increase in hair loss should only last a few weeks to a couple of months.

At the same time, the nails are usually not developing as strong as usual. As the months go by, you may notice indented lines across the nails that correspond to these times of stress. Don’t worry; they will grow right off the end of the nail bed. Be gentle with the nails; moisturize and protect them from harsh chemicals during these times.

The nails often show other changes during treatment, as well. They may become discolored or lift from the nail bed. Again, being gentle to the nails is a good idea during treatment. Don’t have artificial nails placed. Nail polish is OK, but avoid damaging the cuticle. Allow the cuticle to grow over the nail to seal the space between the skin and the nail so a healthy nail can grow. Moisturizing the nails by applying hand cream can be helpful. The same vitamins needed for hair growth also help nails grow.

Many people experience a change in their skin during cancer treatment. It may be drier, more fragile, or have areas of discoloration. These changes are not as quick or sure to reverse as hair and nail changes, but more treatments are available for these problems. If your skin is dry or feels different than before, now is the time to carefully test out some pampering lotions. Keep in mind that you should avoid harsh ingredients like exfoliating chemicals. Seek lotions that give nutrients back to the damaged skin.

Now is a good time for a skin check. Take advantage of this time during treatment to examine the more visible scalp for any skin spots. Your primary care doctor or dermatologist can check for moles or other suspicious growths that have been hiding, and he or she can recommend lotions and treatments to help you manage hair, nail, and skin conditions during recovery.

Seek help if these issues become symptomatic or aren’t acting as you expect. Always keep these skin, hair, and nail changes in perspective. Instead of focusing on what you may be temporarily losing, recognize that these changes reflect the battle you are winning.

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Dr. Carol Drucker is an associate professor of Dermatology and associate medical director of the Dermatology Cancer Prevention Center at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2011.