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Part III: Cancer and Skin Changes—Appearance Alterations

By: Patricia Ringos Beach and Katie Morgan-Lousky
Posted: April 27, 2012, from the May 2012 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
Ingrown nails, nail shedding and dark lines through the nails may occur during cancer treatment.

Ingrown nails, nail shedding and dark lines through the nails may occur during cancer treatment.

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Cancer changes everything. As Eileen experienced, the changes to a person’s life are significant. People respond to cancer in different ways. (See Reactions to a Cancer Diagnosis.) Millions of Americans alive today have a history of cancer: for some, it is a chronic health problem; for others it has been cured; and for still others, it is the cause of death. Finding ways to live with this diagnosis is important for all of these people.

Feelings vary from person to person, and within the same person. These may include hope, denial, anger, fear, stress, anxiety, depression, sadness, guilt, loneliness and gratitude. All these feelings are normal. Many people report that the time between finding out they have cancer and the final plan for treatment—which may be separated by weeks because of tests that need to be completed—is one the most difficult times. Other times of high distress are at the beginning and end of treatment, during times of recurrence and after being told the cancer is terminal. More information about emotions and coping mechanisms associated with cancer is available at the following websites:

Consider the emotional impact from the loss of control of personal information. When you meet someone new, many choices are made about what you want to reveal about yourself. Will you tell this person your age? Your marital status? If you have children? Your religion? How about your political views? That you have high blood pressure? While undergoing treatment for cancer, some of a client’s personal privacy is lost. A bald head, even one with a wig on it, is difficult to hide. Surgical scars, acne, skin color changes along the veins … all of this is difficult to hide satisfactorily. The visibility of these conditions make people feel forced to reveal their cancer diagnosis by way of an explanation.

A special guest

As Eileen’s cancer treatment continued for weeks and months, the cancer seemed destined to stay. “This cancer had definitely taken over my once-energetic, -enthusiastic and -vibrant mother. She had become her cancer. The toll was both physical and emotional. She looked like the cancer—from her chemo port in the left side of her chest to her ileostomy on her abdomen. Other treatment side effects were strikingly evident: painful and peeling hands and feet, swelling from steroids and chemo acne,” remembers her daughter. Eileen was exhausted and tired of sharing her body with the medical community. (See Treatment-induced Appearance Changes for possible skin changes that may be experienced by cancer clients.)

1. Initial assessment and analysis. Eileen experienced several ways cancer changed her appearance and affected her self-esteem. Certainly any of these individually are challenging and together they can be overwhelming. At the time of her visit to Ahava, Eileen was experiencing the following.

  • Hair loss—both scalp and facial hair
  • An abdominal scar with an ileostomy that continually drained stool into a pouch on the side of her abdomen
  • An access port for chemotherapy implanted just under her left collar bone
  • An acnelike rash on her face and upper back