The side effects of chemotherapy and radiation can be taxing physically and emotionally on any cancer patient. However, many people, including oncologists, are unaware of the potential impact to patients’ skin. Both chemotherapy and radiation damage healthy cells, including skin cells, and cancer patients may experience a host of skin problems as a direct result of their therapy that may require additional treatment by skin care specialists.

Chemotherapy is a systemic cancer treatment that affects the whole body, including the skin, which is the largest organ. Some of the skin side effects of chemotherapy are color changes to the skin, mild to serious skin rashes, acute dry skin and skin that is irritated and painful. Chemotherapy also makes the skin drier because the drugs interfere with oil and sweat glands and a reduced or impaired skin barrier causes sensitivities including dryness, itching, rashes and epidermal fissures.

In addition, if the patient has a poor nutritional intake, which can be a serious issue for cancer patients, the skin surface lipids are compromised and the acid mantle of the skin changes which then affects the protective barrier of the skin. The skin becomes very sensitive and can be more easily burnt.

Radiation therapy also causes many skin side effects and reactions. Radiation dermatitis leaves the skin swollen, painful, red, itchy and blistered. Reactions vary from redness (mild), to flaking and itching (moderate), to peeling, seeping and pain (severe).

An Additional Burden

Most oncologists do not deal directly with skin side effects of cancer treatments. Some may refer patients to a dermatologist who may not necessarily be equipped to handle the skin care issues that accompany cancer treatments. The oncology nurse usually is the one to answer patients’ questions and offer solutions. Left untreated, skin side effects of cancer treatments add to the burden of having the disease in the first place and compromise the quality of life of cancer patients.

Many licensed estheticians are helping to fill this need and are choosing to specialize in a new area of practice, Oncology Targeted Esthetics. Training classes are offered at several locations in the United States with Mórag Currin Method Clinical Oncology Esthetics™ presented by Touch for Cancer Online. Along with learning about the special skin care needs and challenges of individuals living with cancer, licensed estheticians learn how to perform safe skin and beauty treatments, and perhaps most importantly, how to provide comfort and relief during esthetic treatments for clients who may be undergoing treatment for cancer.

My friend, Debra Buonaguidi, is a licensed clinical esthetician in California with practices at a doctor’s office in Carmel Valley and at the SkinAnew Pampering Suites in Monterey. A breast cancer survivor herself, Debra experienced the skin problems from cancer treatment first hand. Along with special training, she has developed specific protocols and products to address the special skin care needs of cancer patients.

More Than Beauty

Debra remarks, “For me, it is more than beauty – it is also about bringing the skin back to health. One of the most important steps is to keep the skin care regimen simple for cancer patients. They most likely are not feeling well to begin with, and many times the skin problems and pain can make everything more difficult. Many patients experience relief and see results when they include easy skin treatments in their daily routines. However, I must stress that everyone is different and everyone reacts differently to therapies and products. The best case scenario is when I can meet one-on-one with patients and make sure their special case is addressed appropriately and they are introduced to products that are specific to their needs.”
Here are some general tips for treating cancer treatment skin side effects:

  • Avoid skin care products that contain alcohol or fragrances.
  • Pat skin – don’t rub.
  • Wash with lukewarm water – never hot water.
  • Moisturize the skin day and night. During the day, use a high quality moisturizer with peptides that hold 1000x their weight in water. At night, use a vitamin C and E cream to help repair skin cells while you sleep.
  • Drink lots of pure water to keep the skin hydrated from the inside out.

Dry Skin

  • Spritz rosewater and green tea in a distilled water base on skin often.
  • Use a very gentle soap-free, oil-free cleanser.
  • Be sure to use a good sunscreen every day – SPF 30 with mineral-based titanium zinc oxide.

Radiation Burns and Radiation Dermatitis

  • Apply cool compresses that are not wet.
  • Keep the skin moisturized to prevent itching and cracking.
  • Try a light arnica cream for blisters and an arnica/aloe gel as it heals.
  • Use non-adhesive dressings.
  • A cream with calendula is helpful.

Skin Rashes

  • Use gentle soap-free cleansers or soaps.
  • Try a light arnica cream for blisters and an arnica/aloe gel as it heals.

Skin Bruising

  • Bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme from pineapple, can be used internally or topically as it has antithrombotic and anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Arnica cream or gel has anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Cool compresses help ease bruising.

Eye Area Issues

  • Use a very gentle wash with no perfumes or dyes.
  • For dryness and puffiness around the eyes, use a hydrating moisturizer with no chemicals. Pat on eye area first when you awake in the morning, and before bed.

Skin care is an important part of caring for oneself and is part of caring for the whole person. In fact, improving skin can improve the quality of life for cancer patients (men and women) and help them feel better, both physically and emotionally.

Please note: Before starting any health program or taking any supplements or herbs, seek the advice of a healthcare professional. Talk with your health care professional about your specific medical condition and treatments. The information presented here is meant to be helpful and educational, but is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Barbara Howard is a marketing consultant and freelance journalist residing in Monterey, California. She specializes in natural health and LOHAS, Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability.