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A New Face for Cancer Survivors

Caring for Your Skin, Hair, and Nails during Treatment

by Mario E. Lacouture, MD

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Of all challenges faced by cancer survivors, none are more apparent than those affecting the skin, hair, and nails. During and after therapy, people with cancer frequently develop hair loss, dry, irritated skin, and loose, tender nails. This can affect the consistency of anticancer therapy, as well as a person’s social interactions and self-image. Caring for your skin, hair, and nails plays an important role in improving quality of life during and after cancer treatment.

Fortunately, your voices have been heard and your skin observed, as an increasing number of healthcare providers and clinical programs have emerged that are specifically focused on gaining a better understanding of and developing better treatments for the skin, hair, and nails of people living with cancer.

Depending on the type of treatment received, approximately 40 percent of survivors will develop dry, irritated skin during the course of treatment, according to a survivor survey conducted by CancerCare®. These dermatologic side effects can be caused by the anticancer treatments themselves, dehydration or inadequate caloric and nutrient intake, or concurrent use of other medicines (for example, systemic antibiotics and corticosteroids can cause itchy rashes and stretch marks, respectively).

Author of Article photo

Dr. Mario Lacouture

In most cases, dermatologic side effects should not affect the schedule and dosing of anticancer treatments. For example, there are topical corticosteroids and exfoliating creams that will minimize the hand-foot syndrome that can occur in people receiving certain anticancer drugs. Oral antibiotics have been shown effective against the acnelike rash that can develop during certain treatment regimens. Nail loss and infection can be minimized with the use of hypothermia gloves during therapy. Skin damage from radiation can also be mitigated with the use of topical corticosteroid creams applied from the beginning of therapy until two weeks after. With all of these side effects, it is imperative to intervene early in order to minimize the risk of infections and the possibility of interrupting treatment.

Recognizing dermatologic issues as a vital component of cancer care represents a major step forward in oncology. It means that survivors are living longer, healthier lives in which quality of life considerations are essential. For continued progress, it is important for you to express your concerns to your physician. All too often, the psychosocial impact of these side effects will vary from person to person. Your doctor can work with you to develop a symptom management plan that is right for you, including recommending professional psychosocial support if needed.

The face of cancer survivors is changing, and looking better than ever before.

Click here for more information on What You Can Do to Care for Your Skin, Hair, and Nails

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Dr. Mario Lacouture is a dermatologist and director of the Cancer Skin Care Program of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University in Chicago, IL. His research and clinical interests focus on maintaining dermatologic health in people touched by cancer. Dr. Lacouture dedicates this article to his father, Alvaro Lacouture, a survivor who is bravely facing lung cancer and its associated dermatologic challenges.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2009.