Breast cancer: Keeping your hair and skin safe from chemotherapy and radiation

alt="breasts" Breast cancer and skin health (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

It’s October and it’s officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Accounting for more than one in 10 new cancer diagnoses every year, breast cancer is the second-most cause of cancer-related deaths in women. This silently evolving disease is also among the most treatable of cancers with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. As life-saving as these treatments are, they can leave behind an array of side effects, some of which impact the hair and skin.

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It has been centuries since cancer was discovered and its treatment is still advancing. Chemotherapy and radiation remain the two most common treatments for breast cancer,” says Dr Rinky Kapoor, Consultant Dermatologist, Cosmetic Dermatologist & Dermato-Surgeon, The Esthetic Clinics.

alt="dr rinky kapoor"
Dr. Rinky Kapoor, Consultant Dermatologist, Cosmetic Dermatologist & Dermato-Surgeon, The Esthetic Clinics

While they destroy the cancer cells, the treatments can also weaken the nearby cells, triggering hair fall and disruptions in the skin texture.

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“Many women who have to undergo breast surgery often feel emotionally challenged by the loss of the breast. And their confidence and self-esteem might take a hit as they often feel unattractive and unfeminine,” says the dermatologist. The changes in hair and skin texture can worsen these insecurities.

Dr Kapoor sheds some light on the possible effects of breast cancer treatment on skin and hair and how they can be mitigated.

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Side effects of chemotherapy and radiation on skin and hair

There may be weight loss or weight gain during breast cancer treatment, which can impact the skin and hair quality.

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Chemo and radiation can cause hair thinning and hair loss says the doctor. “But these are temporary. Your hair will grow back in a few months after the treatment completes,” assures Dr Kapoor.

Redness, peeling and blistering may manifest as common symptoms of the treatment. Nails can become dark and brittle. “If you have undergone radiation therapy then blistering at the treatment area is quite normal. For chemotherapy patients rashes and hives appear on the skin as an allergic reaction,” adds Dr Kapoor.

How to take care of your skin and hair during chemo and radiation

There’s no reason to fear chemotherapy or radiation, as these are life-saving therapies for breast cancer. Despite what it does to your skin and hair, the effects usually reverse themselves once the treatment concludes. However, it always helps to pay a little attention to mitigating the side effects of chemo and radiation on the skin and hair.

Start with showing the skin some kindness. Be gentle since the skin and hair are already fragile during the treatment. “Do not try to rub or peel the damaged skin,” says the doctor.

Post-treatment, the skin around the breasts may be extra sensitive. To avoid worsening the skin trauma, wear loose clothes in lieu of tight ones. “Invest in some comfortable and breathable lingerie,” Dr Kapoor suggests.

Special care needs to be taken while washing or cleaning the affected areas. “If you want to clean the affected skin then use a soft cotton cloth, mild soap, and lukewarm water,” says the doctor. “Don’t try hot and cold compress without discussing with your surgeon.”

Any skincare product needs clearance from the doctor who will determine whether it is safe or not. Skin creams and ointments can be used after consulting the doctor. It’s imperative to keep the skin moisturised at all times.

A bit of sunshine may be good for the skin but not immediately after treatment. Arm yourself up with good sunscreen, hats and sunglasses every day. “Keep the affected and treated areas protected from the sun at all times. Cover your hair with a scarf, ” notes the doctor.

Hairfall is inevitable. If it’s too much, cut your hair short or shave your head for better management. Dr Kapoor also recommends making a switch to wooden combs from the damaging plastic ones.

Tying your hair too tight is another no-no. “Tight hairstyles can tug on the hair follicles,” she notes.