Difficult as it is to cope with cancer itself, it can be just as heart-wrenching to deal with the more superficial physical changes. Cancer and its treatments can impact your self-image. Generally, some physical changes you may experience as a cancer patient include:
- Thinning or loss of hair.
- Changes in weight.
- Changes in skin tone and color of nails.
- Skin scarring.
- Changes in physical performance or abilities.
- Changes in posture.
- Changes in bodily or reproductive functions (i.e., infertility)
- Swelling in the limbs (i.e., lymphedema)
These changes in your physical appearance may encourage a sense of self-consciousness or embarrassment about your body, which may later lead to depression and anxiety.
As cancer treatments begin, “they know there will be changes. Intellectually, it registers,” says Louanne Roark, the executive director of the Look Good Feel Better Foundation, which helps patients cope with treatment appearance side effects. However, it is often not until they see changes — such as drastic hair fall when combing the hair, or realizing they have become too skinny to fit in their favorite jeans — that it sets in emotionally, she says.
Further, Fobair et al. (2006) identified appearance concerns among 17 to 33 percent of women within seven months of their cancer diagnosis. These disturbances concerning body image can persist long beyond treatment, as reported by 27 percent of long-term survivors in an additional study (Falk Dahl et al., 2010).
Tips to Help Elevate Your Confidence
The following are self-care practices to help you stay positive about your appearance during cancer treatment:
1. Prioritize Your Nails
The fingernails are often at the bottom of most people’s priorities, but keeping them shiny and healthy can give you the boost of confidence you need amidst cancer. Your nails can be especially vulnerable during chemotherapy. Typical side effects include brittleness, yellowing or darkening, frayed cuticles, the appearance of lines or indentations, and nails separating from the nail bed. Any cracked skin around your fingernails is also a problem because not only are they painful, but they can expose you to bacterial infections and increase your risk of lymphedema, an amassing of lymph fluid that can cause swelling in the arm.
To prevent brittle nails and cracked skin:
- Maintain short, freshly cut nails.
- Apply a rich cuticle cream and a hydrating lotion on your hands daily.
- Wear protective gloves while doing tasks such as washing the dishes or gardening.
- Do not bite or nibble on your nails and cuticles.
- Never clip cuticles or hangnails. Just push them back gently or use a cuticle remover cream.
- Avoid nail salons. If you do go, bring your own sanitized instruments to prevent infections.
- Do not get acrylic nails or gel polishes, which can harbor bacteria. If you want lacquer on your nails, choose a water-based formula because it is less toxic. Gently buffing your nails and using a nail moisturizer can also achieve a clear, polished look.
2. Do Not Neglect Your Hair Just Because It Will “Fall Out”
Not all chemotherapy drugs will cause complete hair loss, although some will cause thinning or partial hair loss. If you choose a more conventional approach to cancer treatment, hair fall can manifest two to three weeks after the start of chemotherapy. Generally, hair does grow back about eight weeks after the last treatment, but hair does not always grow back the same. Sometimes, it is much curlier or straighter than before. In some cases, it may even grow back in a different color. Hair loss due to chemotherapy drugs can also affect the eyebrows, eyelashes, arms, legs, and any hair around the exterior reproductive organs.
In addition, some patients may experience heightened scalp sensitivity, which can make it difficult to wash or brush the hair.
To keep your crowning glory, scalp, and hair follicles healthy:
- Use a mild shampoo to prevent hair damage. A volumizing shampoo and conditioner may also help in giving the hair more body and shine.
- Pat (never rub) the hair or head dry with a soft towel.
- Massage the scalp gently to stimulate blood circulation, which helps channel more nutrients to the hair roots.
- Cut your hair short throughout cancer treatment to make it easier to clean and manage.
- Protect your head from the sun with sunscreen or by wearing a hat.
- Stop getting hair treatments (perming, straightening, dyes, etc.) during the first few months of remission to avoid pulling and breaking newer, weaker hair.
If your treatment prevents you from having luscious hair, you can always invest in high-quality wigs that look natural.
3. Nourish and Protect Your Skin
“A person may look yellow because of liver problems, blue because of breathing problems, bruised because of blood disorders, or red because of skin problems,” according to the American Cancer Society. Changes in the skin can also include dryness, puffiness, peeling, itching, and swelling due to sun exposure, tumor growth, or the side effects of treatment.
To reduce damage to the skin:
- Apply lotions and creams on the daily.
- Use water-repellent salve, such as petroleum jelly on any irritated patches of skin.
- Avoid using anti-aging products, particularly those that contain retinol, which can irritate skin.
- Do not use products with alcohol or perfume.
- If you wear makeup, remove it with special cloths made for this purpose.
- Stop shaving if your skin is too sensitive or sore.
- Use mild, gentle soaps to prevent skin irritations and dryness.
- Limit your showers or baths, and use lukewarm water.
- Pat your skin dry, never rub.
- Avoid getting too much sun. Five to ten minutes is more than enough, and always remember to wear sunscreen and lip balm.
- Do not use tanning beds.
- If you are receiving radiation, avoid exposing the treatment area to extreme hot and cold temperatures present in heating pads, ice packs, and saunas.
- Wear loose-fitting, soft clothing.
Reduce Your Cancer Treatment Side Effects
Body dissatisfaction can become an issue for both men and women battling cancer. However, undergoing treatment does not have to alter your appearance. Choosing a more natural route to treat your disease can cut the side effects in more than half. At New Hope Medical Center, our protocols are designed to eliminate cancer cells by strengthening the body’s natural defense systems, and not by using harmful drugs that can also kill the body’s healthy cells.
Improve your quality of life with New Hope. Contact us by calling 480-666-1403 today.
Fobair P, Stewart SL, Chang S, D’Onofrio C, Banks PJ, Bloom JR (2006) Body image and sexual problems in young women with breast cancer. Psychooncology 15(7): 579–94
Falk Dahl CA, Reinertsen KV, Nesvold IL, Fosså SD, Dahl AA (2010) A study of body image in long-term breast cancer survivors. Cancer 116(15): 3549–57. doi: 10.1002/cncr.25251