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Coping with cancer - looking and feeling your best

Cancer treatment can affect the way the way you look. It can change your hair, skin, nails, and weight. These changes often do not last after treatment ends. But during treatment, it can make you feel down about yourself.

Whether you are a man or woman, taking time to look and feel your best may help boost your mood. Here are some grooming and lifestyle tips that can help you feel your best during cancer treatment.

Keep a Routine

Stick with your regular daily grooming habits. Comb and fix your hair, shave, wash your face, put on makeup, and change into something you did not sleep in, even if it is a fresh pair of pajamas. Doing so will help you feel more in control and ready for the day.

Care for Your Hair

Hair loss is one of the most visible side effects of cancer treatment. Not everyone loses their hair during chemotherapy or radiation. Your hair might get thinner and more delicate. Either way, here are some things you can do.

  • Treat your hair gently. Avoid pulling or breaking it.
  • Consider getting a haircut that does not require a lot of styling.
  • Wash your hair no more than twice a week with gentle shampoo.
  • If you plan to wear a wig, consider meeting with a wig stylist while you still have hair.
  • Treat yourself to hats and scarves that you feel good wearing.
  • Wear a soft cap to protect your scalp from itchy hats or scarves.

Care for Your Skin

Your skin may become sensitive and delicate during treatment. If your skin gets very itchy or breaks out into a rash, call your health care provider. Otherwise, here are some things you can do to take care of your skin.

  • Take short, warm showers to avoid drying out your skin.
  • Shower no more than once a day.
  • If you like baths, take no more than two baths a week. Ask your provider if a special oatmeal bath may help dry skin.
  • Use mild soap and lotion. Avoid soaps or lotions with perfume or alcohol. Apply lotion right after you bathe to lock in moisture.
  • Pat your skin dry. Avoid rubbing your skin with a towel.
  • Shave with an electric razor so you are less likely to get nicks and cuts.
  • Take time off from shaving if it hurts your skin.
  • Try to stay in the shade when the sun is strong.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and clothes to protect your skin from the sun.
  • Both men and women can apply a small amount of concealer (makeup) to hide skin blotches.

Care for Your Mouth

Small cuts in your mouth can become painful during chemo or radiation. If mouth sores get infected, they can hurt and make it hard to eat or drink. But, there are ways you can keep your mouth healthy.

  • Check the inside of your mouth every day. If you notice cuts or sores, tell your provider.
  • Gently brush your teeth, gums, and tongue after every meal and before bed.
  • Use a soft, clean toothbrush. You can also buy soft foam mouth swabs to use instead.
  • Floss daily.
  • DO NOT wear dentures to bed. You also may want to take them off between meals.
  • Keep your mouth from drying out by drinking water or sucking on ice chips.
  • Avoid dry or crunchy food or food that makes your mouth burn.
  • DO NOT smoke.
  • DO NOT drink alcohol.
  • Rinse your mouth with 1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda to 2 cups (475 milliliters) water. Do this after meals and before bed.
  • If mouth pain makes it hard to eat, tell your provider.

Care for Your Nails

Your nails often become dry and brittle during treatment. They may pull away from the bed, get darker in color, and develop ridges. These changes will not last, but may take quite some time to go away. Try these tips to keep your nails looking better.

  • Keep your fingernails short and clean.
  • Keep your nail clippers and files clean to avoid infection.
  • Wear gloves when you do dishes or work in the garden.

Also be careful about what you put on your nails.

  • Keep your cuticles healthy with moisturizer, cuticle cream, or olive oil.
  • DO NOT cut your cuticles while you are in treatment.
  • Polish is OK, just avoid polish with formaldehyde.
  • Remove polish with an oily remover.
  • DO NOT use artificial nails. The glue is too harsh.
  • Bring your own, sterilized tools if you get a manicure or pedicure.

Your Clothes

Your weight may change during cancer treatment. Some people lose weight and some people gain weight. You might have a surgical scar you do not want to show. The best clothes will be comfortable, fit loosely, and make you feel good. Even a new pair of fun pajamas can brighten your day.

  • Go for soft fabrics that feel good next to your skin.
  • Try on pants with different kinds of waistlines. DO NOT wear tight pants that cut into your tummy. This can upset your stomach.
  • Your skin tone may change, so favorite colors may no longer look as flattering. Jewel tones, like emerald green, turquoise blue, and ruby red look good on almost everyone. A bright scarf or hat can add color to your outfit.
  • If you have lost weight, look for large knits and extra layers to give yourself more bulk.
  • If you have gained weight, structured shirts and jackets can flatter your shape without pinching or squeezing.

Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) -- lookgoodfeelbetter.org is a website that offers additional tips for both men and women to help you feel good about your appearance during cancer treatment.

References

American Cancer Society. Look and feel your best during cancer treatment. Cancer.org Web site. Updated February 5, 2013. www.cancer.org/cancer/news/features/look-and-feel-your-best-during-cancer-treatment. Accessed January 20, 2017.

National Cancer Institute. Side effects. Cancer.gov Web site. Updated April 29, 2015. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects. Accessed January 20, 2017.

Pappas-Taffer L, Lee K, Higgins HW, Robinson-Bostom L, McDonald CJ. Dermatologic toxicities of anticancer therapy. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 44.

Review Date 12/10/2016

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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