Skincare During Cancer Treatment
People undergoing chemotherapy or radiation often come to see me in my dermatology practice because their skin feels dry and paper-thin. To understand why this happens, and what we can do to make the skin supple and resilient again, we need to remember that all the cells in the body—even cancerous cells—are connected. Because damage to one cell is, in some small way, damage to all cells, even the most narrowly targeted cancer treatment can produce a host of unpleasant side effects like hair loss and changes in skin tone and texture. The good news is that the interconnectedness of our cells also provides us with an opportunity to restore and support the health of the skin and the health of every other system in the entire body.
Our strategy for rebuilding skin health begins at the cellular level. When we are at our youngest and healthiest, our cells have strong, high-functioning membranes that can keep them well hydrated—replete with the water that is essential to the chemistry that is life itself. As we age, and when we expose our cells to everyday stress and assaults, our cell membranes become damaged and less able to hold essential water within our cells. That cellular dehydration prevents older or damaged cells from functioning at their peak, which means that the systems composed of those cells function poorly. That dehydration process is dramatically accelerated when someone is undergoing targeted, cell-destroying therapies, like those we rely upon to fight cancer. To compound the damage to otherwise healthy cells, which is the “collateral damage” from cancer treatments, many patients find that chemotherapy and radiation can leave them too weak to eat, unable to tolerate certain foods or simply without an appetite. That means that the body isn’t getting the nutrition it needs to build a new generation of healthy, high-functioning cells to replace those that are damaged and dehydrated.
The first facet of our cellular-recovery strategy is to restore that stream of key cell-building nutrients to the body as soon as possible. Because cell membranes are composed of lipids and amino acids, foods rich in healthy omega fats and lean protein are critically important. Since cold-water fish, like salmon and black cod, give us key lipids and proteins, they are an excellent addition to the diet. Another key group of cell-builders are the foods I call embryonic foods—eggs, nuts and seeds. These also contain key fats, protein and all the vitamins and minerals needed for an organism to spring to life. Almost as important as the cell-building foods are colorful, plant-based foods. These contain antioxidant compounds that can help to protect cells from the most common source of damage—oxidative free radicals. These water-rich foods also digest slowly to provide a healthy, cell-nourishing stream of water. It’s the reason I strongly advocate “eating your water” as a healthy practice for everyone.
The second facet of our cellular-recovery strategy targets the skin topically. The skin is our largest and most connected organ. It is a water and temperature-regulating envelope, and it is a barrier that is our first line of defense against external assault by parasites, fungi, bacteria, viruses and environmental aggressors like sun, pollution and grime. By keeping our skin’s surface nourished and well hydrated, we support its barrier function. By shielding our skin from UV damage, we prevent direct and consequential cell damage that can interfere with its ability to perform all of its duties as a complex organ.
The third facet of our cellular-recovery strategy focuses on the connection between our mind and our body. Too much stress, especially chronic stress, can take a toll on our health, all the way down to the cellular level. Since every aspect of cancer care, from diagnosis through treatment, is extremely stressful, managing stress is an essential part of recovery.
While the biological benefits of using meditation and a regular sleep schedule to help ease the impact of stress are well documented, sometimes these tried-and-true techniques can be challenging for people who are experiencing the exhaustion and time disorientation that come with treatment. An alternative avenue for stress management, and one that can be easily followed at any point in the journey back to health, is based upon providing some relief from one of the key stressors during treatment—the all-consuming nature of the experience. Patients tell me that sometimes it can feel as if the focus is always on taking action against the cancer, and not on taking care of the person who has cancer. That’s why I encourage each patient to remember that he or she is the most important person in his or her own life—a person deserving of love and a person who deserves to have time to have his or her needs met. I have seen the healing power of quality “me” time that is free from care.
Time out from the obligations of our lives is essential, whether we are fighting disease or fighting to keep ahead of daily demands. Try to make your “me” time free from “should-dos,” “must-dos,” guilt and negative judgment. High-touch personal care services, like massages and facials, can be particularly rewarding ways to take time out for yourself. I also recommend spending time discovering and pursuing a passion. During my own minor health crisis a few years ago, I looked at the time away from my ordinary work life as a gift and began to explore painting. It gave me a wonderful outlet and a chance to focus on something that had absolutely nothing to do with any health or life concern.
When patients embrace a whole-person, cellular-recovery strategy, not only are they able to address their concerns about thin skin, they are able to begin to improve every cell and every system in their bodies. No matter where a patient is on the path from diagnosis to treatment to becoming a cancer-free survivor, following these simple steps can allow him or her to look and feel as good as possible, and that is clearly a powerful prescription for better health.