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Caring for Your Skin

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Updated July 02, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

You may never have imagined that colon cancer treatments could adversely affect your skin, but they can. The treatments aimed to help you get well may sometimes negatively impact the biggest organ -- your skin.

Keeping Skin Hydrated and Healthy

When skin becomes dry or irritated, it can get itchy. Scratching your skin not only irritates it further, but it can lead to secondary infections. Help your skin stay moist and hydrated by:

  • Wearing sunscreen or protective clothing when outdoors
  • Keeping your nails short and clean (to help prevent infections if you do scratch)
  • Using mild soaps and moisturizers that are free of alcohol and fragrances
  • Using moisturizer daily
  • Avoiding harsh chemical use, such as depilatory creams or dermal abrasion kits
  • Putting on gloves before you touch cleaning chemicals or harsh detergents

Also, avoid taking very hot showers or baths. Hot water and harsh soaps can peel away the outer acidic layer of your skin, which protects against yeast, bacteria and other common skin germs.

Do not remove or try to wash off any skin markings if you are receiving radiation therapy. These markings, also called tattoos, are meant to guide your treatment to a specific location and should not be removed.

Lubricate Your Lips

At some point during chemotherapy, certain common side effects may start in your mouth. Take proactive steps to ensure your oral health during and after treatment by:

  • Visiting the dentist before treatment and taking care of any tooth or gum problems
  • Brushing teeth daily with a soft toothbrush
  • Changing the flavor or brand of your toothpaste if the smell or taste starts to bother you
  • Avoiding alcohol-based commercial mouth rinses
  • Rinsing your mouth with plain water or salt water after you eat
  • Applying a moisturizing lubricant, such as petroleum jelly, to your lips each night before bed
  • Sucking on ice chips throughout the day to maintain moisture

Healthy Scalp, Healthy Hair

Both chemotherapy and radiation therapy have the potential to cause hair loss. If your doctor has informed you that this may be a side effect of treatment, you may wish to go shopping for a wig prior to losing your hair (so the color and style can be matched), trim your hair short, or purchase a hat or head cover to protect your newly exposed scalp. In the meanwhile, take good care of your hair and scalp by:

  • Using mild shampoo, such as a baby shampoo, only when needed
  • Brushing or combing hair gently to keep it free of knots and tangles
  • Avoiding chemical treatments including permanents, relaxants and colorings until your doctor gives you permission
  • Wearing a hat in the sun if your hair is thinning or has fallen out
  • Avoiding itching or scratching the scalp

If Your Mobility Has Decreased

Your skin may become susceptible to ulcerations, also known as "bed sores", if you lie or sit in one position continuously. Make sure to change position frequently (or have someone help you do so), such as turning from side to side if you are bed bound or shifting your weight on alternate hips if you spend a lot of time in a recliner or chair. Notify your doctor immediately if you notice any red or broken skin over pressure points such as your heels, elbows, hips or bottom.

Nails Count as "Skin," Too

There is a good reason why most health care workers no longer wear artificial fingernails or wraps -- they can harbor bacteria. Keep your nails clean and trimmed, and moisturize cuticles daily with a mild lotion or oil. Do not cut ragged cuticles as this can introduce infection; your body doesn't need extra work fighting infections right now. You can also wear gloves when using any cleaning chemicals or harsh detergents to protect your fingernails and cuticles.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you notice an unusual or bothersome skin change, you should notify your doctor. He or she may be able to help ease your mind (if it's a completely normal or expected effect of treatment) or may want to see you for a quick look.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society's Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.

Look Good Feel Better. (n.d.). Make Up Step By Step. Skin Care During Chemotherapy and Radiation. Accessed June 27, 2012.

MD Anderson Cancer Center. (n.d.). Oral Care. Accessed June 26, 2012.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Hair Loss. Accessed June 27, 2012.

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