Managing Chemo’s Side Effects

If you are a caregiver and your charge is undergoing cancer treatment, or if you are facing cancer chemotherapy yourself, then you know only too well that there are side effects from this treatment.  Skin and nail problems, in particular, are pretty common.  Chemotherapy is drug therapy that focuses on cancer cells.  Under normal circumstances, your cells grow and die in an orderly, controlled fashion.   Cancer cells do not follow the rules, however, and keep forming without control.  Chemo is designed to kill these wayward cells or at least to stop them from multiplying.  The trouble with this approach is obvious: sometimes perfectly innocent healthy cells are harmed too – hence the side effects.

Exactly what you or a loved one will encounter by way of side effects depends on the type of chemotherapy prescribed, and the dosage.  The usual side  effects include vomiting, extreme tiredness, pain, hair loss and nausea.  Fortunately, the healthy cells almost always recover after the treatment, so most unpleasant side effects slowly go way.

Factoring into this, of course, is the precise type of cancer being treated, the actual drugs used, the treatment goals and how your body handles the whole process.  Sometimes there are breaks between courses so the body has a chance to build new and healthy cells, but just as often, daily or weekly treatment is in order.  The drugs are taken by mouth, as an injection or intravenously.

The National Institutes of Health, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has the following recommendations for coping with chemo’s common skin and nail problems:

Let your doctor or nurse know if:

  • Your skin is dry, red, hurts or is itchy.
  • Your nails are dark, yellow or cracked.

Call your doctor or nurse at once if:

  •  You develop sudden or severe itching.
  • Your skin has a rash or hives.

For minor skin problems:

  • Use only mild soaps that are gentle on the skin.
  • Use lotions and creams.  Check with your nurse as to when to use them.  Ask what brands or products you should use.
  • Don’t use products on your skin that have perfume or alcohol in them.

Protect your skin from the sun:

  • Do your best to stay away from the sun during peak daylight hours.
  • When you are outdoors, always wear sunscreen and lip balm.  Cover up with long-sleeved shirts, pants and a wide-brimmed hat when you walk or garden or spend at time outside.
  • Don’t even think about using tanning beds.

Be gentle with your skin:

  • Shave less often or even stop altogether for the duration if your skin is tender or sore.
  • Try taking shorter showers or baths in warm water.  Avoid long soaks in very hot water.  Pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it.
  • Dusting your skin with cornstarch may help; be sure to get it in the folds of your skin (under your arms, behind your knees, under the breasts and so on).

For minor nail problems:

  • Check with your nurse to see what products you can use that will help your nails.
  • Keep your nails clean and short.  Before you get a manicure, ask your nurse if it’s okay.
  • Wear gloves as you clean, wash dishes or garden.

Some general questions to ask your doctor (or nurse):

  • What are the kinds of problems I might expect, and which ones should I call you about?
  • What brands of soap and lotion do you recommend?
  • What SPF (sun protection factor) do you suggest be in the lip balm and sunscreen that I use?
  • How about an oatmeal bath?  Will that help my skin be less itchy?
  • What about what’s happening to my nails?  What products will help me there?
  • When are these side effects likely to go away?
  • After the treatments are over, will I need to keep using sunscreen?  At what SPF?

Free Services for more information: National Cancer Institute, Cancer Information Service


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