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Navigating Uncertainty: How Our Bodies Change During Cancer Treatment

by Dr Juliana Latif
Monday, November 22, 2021

There will be times in life when we expect there to be sun, but it rains instead. Uncertainty is such an uncomfortable feeling: being out of control and wishing we could see the path that is before us. At the age of 38, Dr. Juliana was diagnosed with breast cancer. While the diagnosis itself is frightening, dealing with what is next, which is the cancer treatment and the side effects it brings added an extra layer of fear. She underwent a combination of treatments with chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and Herceptin therapy. With all these comes the hope of recovery, together with a list of changes on her skin, hair, and body.

Skin

During and after the cancer treatment, depending on the types of drugs used (such as steroid, immunotherapy drugs), the skin can go through much stress and as a result, patients may experience inflammation, acne, redness, irritation, and dryness on the face or the body. Some other symptoms are dry and dull skin, pigmentation/ hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles, enlarged pores and sagging skin. Sagging skin occurs because of collagen breakdown, which is also contributed by cancer drugs and physical stress on the body from the treatment.

Hair

Of course, the most common side effect that is seen is hair loss, and as females, our self-esteem could take a big hit. Chemotherapy can cause hair loss all over the body, not just the scalp. These can include your eyelashes, eyebrows, underarms, and pubic areas. Excess hair can occur as well after treatment ends in an accelerated growth on the face and body.

Body

Last but not least, there are changes to the body like weight fluctuations, muscle aches, water retention/swelling, and a lot of changes to the female reproductive system. Depending on the treatment, menstrual cycles can stop temporarily or permanently due to the imbalance of female hormones. There are also symptoms like vaginal dryness, urinary incontinence, decreased sex drive, and painful sex. This happens due to the shrinking and thinning of the vaginal wall and lack of estrogen. Chemotherapy and steroids during treatment may affect appetite leading to either weight gain or weight loss.

Most patients will strike a combo of skin, hair, and body changes. All these changes can be overwhelming, and as the journey continues, not knowing what else will happen next just makes it depressing. However, it is important to keep in mind that every person is built differently, so not everyone will react the same way to cancer treatments. Simply knowing what to expect can reduce some of the anxiety by feeling a little more prepared. The good news is that side effects are temporary, and there are actions we can take to ease and heal from them. In life, we must learn to dance in the rain, and we all have one another’s back. In our next blog post, we will offer some self-care tips that allow and encourage you to cope with these side effects a little more easily and comfortably.

Sources and references:

Everyday Health – When Cancer Changes Your Appearance

Cure Today – The Skin You’re In: Coping With Body Changes After Cancer

Healthline – The Effects of Chemotherapy on Your Body

WebMD – How Chemotherapy Affects Your Body After Treatment

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