How to Cope with Chemotherapy-Related Skin, Hair, and Reproductive Tract Changes

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Chemotherapy can be a life-saving cancer destroyer. Unfortunately, the drugs don’t take aim solely at cancer. They can also kill hair, skin, and reproductive tract cells. This collateral damage leaves some chemotherapy patients with thinning hair, nail loss, uncomfortably dry skin, and permanent reproductive damage.

If your chemotherapy (commonly called chemo) is causing you to suffer from embarrassing and uncomfortable hair and skin changes, or changes in sexuality, there are coping mechanisms you can try to help you get through your time in treatment.

Everyone responds to chemo differently and not all chemotherapy side effects are the same. You may experience some of the symptoms listed here, but not all of them. To help you prepare for the road ahead, be sure and ask your doctor which side effects are common to the particular chemotherapy you’ll be undergoing.

  • Thinning hair: Hair loss can occur anywhere on the body during chemo, but the hair usually grows back when treatment ends. In the interim, you can wear wigs, hats, and turbans to hide your hair loss. Carefully applied make up can fill in lost eyebrows. Some cancer patients decide to forego the cosmetics and proudly display their bald pates as a show of survivorship.

  • Skin irritation: You can soothe dry, itchy, rash-prone skin by taking quick, warm (not hot) baths. Use mild soaps and apply lotion right after you bathe to help seal in moisture. Pat, don’t rub, your skin dry. Avoid perfumes, colognes, and aftershaves. Stay out of direct sunlight unless you’re wearing protective clothing and a high SPF sunscreen.

Some people can have an allergic reaction to their chemotherapy. If your skin begins to itch severely or if you notice any rashes or hives, tell your doctor right away.

  • Nail changes: If your treatments have left you with fewer nails, or nails that are yellow and brittle, you can protect them by wearing gloves when you’re doing housework or gardening. Applying nail strengtheners might also help. If your nail bed becomes red and starts to hurt, be sure and tell your doctor. It may be a sign of infection.

  • Reproductive damage: Chemotherapy can alter eggs and sperm and cause birth defects; you shouldn’t reproduce while you’re being treated. Some types of chemo can also cause permanent infertility. If you hope to have children after your cancer treatment is through, but you’re about to undergo a chemo which is likely to leave you sterile, you should talk with your doctor about harvesting your eggs or sperm.

  • Decreased sexual desire: Whether you’re male or female, waning libido is a common chemotherapy side effect. Additionally, if you’re a man, you may experience impotence. If you’re a woman, you may develop symptoms that mimic peri-menopause. These include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, and irregular periods.

Other than vaginal moisturizers to help women combat dryness, there isn’t much on the medication front that can help couples during treatment. Patience, open communication, and lots of love may be the best medicine.

If you’d like some hands-on advice on how to overcome chemotherapy’s cosmetic side effects, consider attending a Look Good. . .Feel Better workshop. These sessions are held throughout the country and are a joint venture of The American Cancer Society and the Personal Care Products Council Foundation.

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