Most people know that chemotherapy (chemo) treatment comes with a pretty good chance of hair loss, also known as alopecia. Most people don’t, however, think of the effects on the skin.
Before understanding how chemo affects the skin, it is important to understand what chemo is. In short, it is poison. There are more than 100 different chemo drugs and they are used to kill cancer. Moreover, chemotherapy is almost always used as a systemic treatment. Drugs used in systemic (total body) chemotherapy regimens can be given in these ways: oral (usually as pills); intravenous (infused through a vein); intramuscular (injected into a muscle); and subcutaneous (injected under the skin). Essentially, this means the drugs travel throughout the body to reach cancer cells wherever they are. Unfortunately, this also means the drugs affect the entire body, including healthy cells. Understanding that chemo is toxic and affects the entire body is important to fully understanding why chemotherapy wreaks havoc on the skin.
Chemo affects the skin in two ways. On one hand, chemo affects the body’s internal processes which change how the skin behaves. On the other hand, the drugs themselves can have a negative impact on the skin if they come into contact with the skin. First, let’s look at how chemo affects the body’s internal processes. Chemotherapy may make the skin drier because the drugs interfere with the normal function of the oil and sweat glands. Possible side effects include redness, itching, peeling and dryness. Skin should be kept as moist as possible during treatment because cracking and chapping can lead to infection in the cancer patient whose immune system is already suppressed leading to a potentially dangerous combination. Cancer patients are advised never to pull, tug or scrub the face too hard. Overzealous cleansing can strip away the remaining natural oils. Soap-free face cleansers that gently cleanse makeup and oil without drying skin are preferable. It is recommended to use an antimicrobial soap, however, to effectively clean areas like the armpits and genitals, which are prone to infection. Moisturizing day and night can slow down the skin’s loss of moisture by leaving behind a filmy deposit of oil. The oil not only helps retard the moisture evaporation, but it also makes the surface of the skin softer and more pliable. This may be especially important for hands and soles of the feet, which may become sore and blistered. Rubber gloves should be used when doing household chores. With cancer patients, it is of paramount importance to avoid placing additional stress on the body by preventing other ailments. Therefore, cancer patients are also advised not to share their skin and body care products with anyone because of the danger of infection. Finally, these risk factors should be taken into consideration when cancer patients seek skincare treatments. All skin treatments should be soothing and hydrating, with absolutely no extractions (an extraction could turn into an infection), abrasives, or peeling agents.
Just as chemotherapy affects the body’s internal processes, it can affect the skin from the outside. Stay tuned for Part II………………….