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Part II: Cancer and Skin Changes—Altered Sensation

When working with cancer clients, be sure to use cotton linens and be careful not to crowd their personal space.

By: Patricia Ringos Beach and Katie Morgan-Lousky
Posted: March 30, 2012, from the April 2012 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Editor’s note: This article is the second part of a three-part series about how cancer affects the skin. The first part appeared in the March 2012 issue, and addressed cancer and skin dehydration. The third part will appear in the May 2012 issue and will cover cancer’s impact on the skin’s appearance. Skin care professionals must seek specialized training before offering the services addressed in this series.

Robin was in her late 40s when diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her initial symptoms were vague, and the cancer had spread by the time of diagnosis. Her medical treatment plan started with a biopsy, and was followed with chemotherapy and surgery. During and after the chemotherapy, Robin had profound sensory changes and lost all her hair. When describing her experience, she said: “It feels like hot marbles running up and down my head.”


Chemotherapy is a systemic cancer treatment used when cancer has spread or metastasized beyond the initial tumor, or there is a very high risk of metastasis. It refers to chemical agents or drugs that are selectively destructive to cancer cells. These drugs target cells to stop their growth and development, eventually stopping the growth, development and spread of the cancer. In Robin’s case, the cancer had spread beyond her ovaries, and into parts of her large bowel and liver before it was detected and treatment could commence.

Cancer cells reproduce largely uninhibited, and it is these cells multiplying that eventually form a tumor. At any time, cancerous cells can also break away from the original site and be carried in the blood to distant sites elsewhere in the body, setting up new cancerous growths. This is called metastasis, and it is a hallmark of cancer. Destruction and control of these sometimes-distant metastases require a treatment that also travels throughout the body, such as chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is usually given intravenously, but it also can be administered several other ways, including via a pill taken orally. It travels through the blood to reach all parts of the body. Chemotherapy works by interfering with cell reproduction. Cancer cells take the major hit because most are continuously reproducing.

There are a large number of chemotherapy agents that may be used alone or in combination in the treatment of cancer. The prescribed chemotherapy will depend on the type of cancer, its aggressiveness and the overall health of the patient. Although some types of chemotherapy are very targeted and specific, many others are very good at indiscriminately destroying cells that are reproducing. It is this more or less indiscriminate destruction of reproducing cells that leads to the side effects commonly associated with chemotherapy. The cells of the gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow and hair follicles normally reproduce often. Unfortunately, many chemotherapy agents are not smart enough to distinguish between the unwanted reproduction of cancer cells and the normal cells that are reproducing. This causes the side effects of nausea, vomiting, immune system suppression with infection and loss of hair. Robin suffered hair loss along with a less common side effect: peripheral neuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy