Expert's Opinion

Cancer Care: A Delicate Subject

September 23, 2013

By Suki Kramer
Suki Skin Care

From family members to close friends, we all, sadly, know at least one person who has been touched by cancer. Fortunately nowadays, there is so much more support available than in the past for those recently diagnosed or in treatment to help navigate the road to recovery. However, the two most common cancer treatments — radiation and chemotherapy, and even many drug therapies — often have side effects that leave skin itchy, irritated, even to the point of not being able to be touched, red and flaky, and in extreme cases, result in permanent scarring and discoloration.

Finding skin care solutions that are effective, yet also safe and healthy for cancer patients and survivors can be challenging. We know that what we put on our skin will end up in our bodies, so it’s especially important that these folks take extra care in choosing skin care ingredients that protect and heal. It’s worth noting that products labeled “natural” are often not what they claim to be. You can find a list of ingredients to avoid on my website.

I would caution against sites like EWG’s Skin Deep, which list even mundane ingredients like chamomile as toxic (when manufacturer’s are using this ingredient in as miniscule amounts as less than .05%) or create mass hysteria over lead in lipstick when actually, it is at the levels legally in your own drinking water. So, just, as usual, know your beauty and be wary of internet information. “Pinkwashing” is also sadly, something to be aware of, where companies and organizations claim to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produce, manufacture and/or sell products that are linked to the disease, really making money off the cause. This happens so frequently these days and it’s really horrifying if you think about it.

The amount of pink in October and November is truly overwhelming and even organizations behind the walks have been thrown into controversy, not allowing their financial records to be made public, which they are legally obligated to do. Perish the thought, but what would they do without breast cancer? Think Before You Pink, a project of Breast Cancer Action, is a truly great resource I encourage you to check out for more information. Here’s an overview of the two most common cancer treatments— radiation and chemotherapy — and I will only focus on the skin changes that results, and natural solutions.

Radiation Therapy
More than half of all people diagnosed with cancer are treated with radiation therapy, which targets the affected area with high doses of radiation. A series of radiation treatments are prescribed to kill the cancer cells and prevent them from growing and multiplying. The skin’s response to radiation therapy typically has three stages, beginning with itching and redness in the affected area. With more treatments, second-stage symptoms include peeling and flaking of skin, along with increased sensitivity and dryness. By the end of the treatment series, the prolonged radiation exposure can burn the skin, resulting in unwanted pigmentation and scarring.

Chemotherapy, which kills rapidly dividing cancer cells, also destroys healthy cells that divide rapidly — including your hair and skin cells. The destruction of these healthy skin cells can create a host of skin problems, including rashes, bruising, redness, uneven pigmentation, acne and extreme dryness.

Safe and Natural Skin Care
Before starting any cancer treatment, it’s wise to strengthen the skin’s natural defenses with antioxidants that help nourish and protect. Look for ingredients like green tea extract, white grapeseed, and Vitamin C and E, all powerful antioxidants.

Once treatment begins, the key is to be super gentle. Avoid harsh and abrasive cleansing and exfoliating products or devices, including salt scrubs, loofahs and pumice stones. Cleansers formulated for sensitive skin (but beware and read the ingredient lists because often these will not be natural and will contain synthetics too…) will be the most gentle for daily use.

For redness and irritation, choose ingredients with natural anti-inflammatory (it won’t say that on the box because that is illegal now so you will have to decipher that for yourself unfortunately) properties, such as the extract of the European flowering plant Arnica montana (arnica), comfrey, licorice root, and chamomile (anthemis nobilis). The anti-inflammatory, moisturizing compounds found in oats called avenanthramides help to soothe and repair traumatized skin. Oats also have soothing and really gentle exfoliating and anti-itch properties. For bruising, the fat-soluble nutrient vitamin K1 penetrates damaged skin and helps speed healing. Vitamin D helps to accelerate skin regeneration, which minimizes any scarring or skin discoloration.

As both radiation and chemotherapy tend to dry out skin, keep skin as moist as possible, Hyaluronic acid — a natural carbohydrate polymer that makes up part of the human body and plants — is an outstanding humectant that draws moisture to skin, protects, repairs and coats cells. 100% pure fruit oils are also wonderful for dry skin (avoid mineral oils that do nothing nutritive for you). Jojoba oil is awesome for the face. Argan oil, rich with oleic acid, linoleic acid, Vitamin E, phyto-sterols and phenols, can reduce scarring, soothe skin irritations and promote cell regeneration. Emu oil (for non-vegans) is an excellent source for essential fatty acids and when applied topically, can help diminish scarring and offer relief from dermatitis and dry skin.

Since chemotherapy can photosensitize the skin, skin protection is especially important for cancer patients. If it’s not possible to stay out of the sun, wear hats or other protective clothing, and choose a sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which provides the cleanest sunscreen and may provide a bit of relief from skin irritation as well as anti-bacterial action. Use mineral makeup, which also provide UV sun protection, and is often gentle. Do check the ingredients and avoid those with mica, as that can often be an irritant.

The suki “know your beauty” philosophy honors each of us from the inside out. Beauty is health, strength and confidence, and we celebrate those patients and survivors who inspire us all.

About the Author
Suki Kramer is the founder, president and formulator of suki, inc. skin care as well as a skin care expert for assorted media.