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Hyperpigmentation: A Key Side Effect of Chemotherapy

By: Jennifer Linder, MD
Posted: May 28, 2013, from the June 2013 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
Chemotherapy treatment

The patient's skin looks visibly healthier in regular light after two months of a chemotherapy and radiation therapy support treatment. There is also a substantial lightening of underlying hyperpigmentation seen in the UV photography.

The American Cancer Society defines cancer as “…a group of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can result in death.” According to the National Cancer Institute, of the 1,638,910 new cancer diagnoses that were predicted for 2012, 577,190 of those diagnosed were not expected to survive. Although that is 1,500 deaths per day from some type of cancer, that number is likely lower than it could be due to targeted treatment plans administered by many highly skilled physicians and other medical professionals. One common component of any cancer treatment plan is chemotherapy. Although highly effective at treating many cancers, it does have myriad negative side effects.

A side effect that is quite common, but not generally discussed, is cutaneous hyperpigmentation. Once patients have successfully completed their cancer treatments, helping them to reclaim healthy skin can be a great emotional support. By understanding the potential causes of hyperpigmentation as related to chemotherapy, you can help your patients look and feel healthy and beautiful by suppressing it during chemotherapy and addressing it after treatment is completed.

Chemotherapy: A primer

To break down this complicated topic to its basics does not do the science and effort behind drug development justice; however, because the topic of this article is hyperpigmentation and not chemotherapy, providing a basic understanding of what these drugs do in the body is useful and relevant to the skin care professional.

Because cancer cells typically replicate much more quickly and frequently than normal cells, chemotherapy drugs target the genetic material inside the nuclei of cells that are splitting, thereby stopping their replication. Some drugs inflict this damage to the chromosomes prior to the cell dividing and some while they are splitting. Using a combination of these drugs increases the number of cells that can be targeted. Cells that are not actively replicating are less likely to incur damage from the drugs; yet noncancerous, healthy cells are usually collateral damage. Hair and skin cells are constantly replicating, so they are usually damaged during these necessary treatments.

Some common cutaneous side effects of chemotherapy treatment include:

  • Sensitivity or allergic reactions;
  • Severe dryness;
  • Flushing;
  • Hyperpigmentation;
  • Photosensitivity;
  • Rashes; and
  • Folliculitis, an acnelike skin rash.

Heartfelt Stories and Easy-to-Understand Science to Elevate Your Spa Services for Your Clients with Cancer

Oncology Esthetics: A Practitioner's Guide by Morag Currin is a sensitively written book guiding you through the different types of cancers, cancer therapies, common ingredients and how it affects the skin, oncology drugs used in treatment, and side effects. Currin's book discusses different spa services and how they can be modified to suit your clients'needs.

See the Reviews! Alluredbooks-Oncology Esthetics