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Coping with Changes in Appearance after Chemotherapy

Cancer can be life-altering in many ways. When you’re dealing with cancer, your main focus is your health, but for many people the disease and its subsequent treatment causes other changes that are just as challenging.

Chemotherapy and radiation cause physical changes that also may affect you emotionally. Hair loss with chemotherapy is common knowledge, but the treatment also affects hair growth on other parts of the body, while radiation may cause skin damage.

Though these changes are difficult, you can do a few things to cope with them and feel better about how you look.

Physical Changes with Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy causes hair loss not only on the head, but also on the eyebrows, legs, eyelashes and private area. This is because the treatment affects some normal cells at the same time it is trying to kill cancer cells.

Chemotherapy also may lead to weight and muscle loss or weight gain. It is very taxing and understandably some people may be less physically active during treatment. Certain medications also may increase your appetite, leading to weight gain. The steroids included in some chemo regimens can increase the amount of fatty tissue in the body, as well.

People may lose weight during chemotherapy because of certain cancer-produced chemicals in the body that decrease appetite or increase diarrhea and nausea, making it difficult to keep food down. For some people, the taste of food changes and it becomes less appetizing. Depending on the location of the cancer, others may have difficulty swallowing. If the tumor is near the digestive tract, they may also get full quickly without consuming all the necessary nutrients.

Skin changes also occur during chemotherapy. Certain chemotherapy drugs can cause temporary redness in the face and neck. This happens when the blood capillaries, which are the smallest part of blood vessels, enlarge and expand. The skin also can get dry, become darker or even more pale. Your nails also may become more dry and brittle during treatment. If you undergo radiation in addition to chemotherapy, you may experience dry skin, discoloration at the treatment site or have permanent markings on your body in the areas we marked to map out the treatment.

How Best to Cope

Many of the physical changes that occur during cancer treatment are temporary. After treatment, skin irritations begin to subside and changes to your skin will go away or begin less noticeable over time. In most cases, this can take up to six months. However, some patients may continue to have slight skin discoloration for several years after treatment.

Hair loss is one of the most challenging things about chemotherapy, but preparing for it helps. Talk to your doctor beforehand about whether the chemotherapy drugs you’ve been prescribed are likely to cause hair loss. If so, you may want to shop for a wig, beautiful scarf, hat or head covering before you begin treatment. You can choose to wear a wig when you go out or to the hospital or a scarf while at home. It’s all a personal choice based on what makes you most comfortable.

If you are dealing with weight loss or weight gain, try to wear things that make you feel good or happy and bring back positive memories. Some people try to hide weight loss with clothing that’s too big, but clothes that fit properly will look better and make you feel more comfortable. If you’ve gained weight during chemotherapy, talk to your doctor about how you can safely maintain a healthy weight during treatment. He or she may recommend low-impact exercises like walking or swimming and dietary modifications that emphasize whole fruits and vegetables and minimize processed foods and sugar.

Aside from all these steps, having support often is a tremendous help. Talking to other cancer survivors about how they dealt with these physical changes may give you extra encouragement and strength to deal with the same challenges. Therapy, talking to a counselor or your doctor helps, too.

It’s difficult to deal with all that cancer throws at you, including the physical changes and others’ reactions to it. But being prepared, seeking advice and wearing things that make you feel better, will help you cope better. With all the cancer entails, it also strengthens you. And with that strength, you can deal with anything.

Our Integrative Medicine program offers many classes to help you cope with your cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. Certain classes, such as yoga and Look Good, Feel Better will address issues of self-esteem after treatment. Events are open to all members of the Central Florida community who are actively undergoing or have just finished treatment. Find out more about Integrative Medicine program events here