The Medical Minute: Looking Good to Feel Better During Cancer Treatment

HERSHEY, Pa. – When facing a cancer diagnosis, it can be challenging to keep one’s spirits up. For women, the side effects that treatment may have on their physical appearance can make it difficult to leave the house and face the world.

Such side effects can vary from patient to patient, but they can include hair loss, dry skin, changes in finger and toe nails, and weight gain or swelling.

Lynn Fantom, clinical nurse coordinator at Penn State Hershey Breast Center, says women going through treatment can help combat the effects to their psyche by being proactive, educating themselves and getting support.

Talk about the wig

“For many women, hair loss is kind of the big neon sign that says ‘I have cancer,'” Fantom said.

The Breast Center staff is proactive and talks to patients about head coverings — like wigs, scarves, and hats — before hair loss and recommends the American Cancer Society wig room in the Cancer Institute that provides them free of charge.

Ice chips, lotion and other tips

Fantom recommends that any woman going though treatment talk to her health care team so they can walk her through what’s going to happen and offer tips. She reminds patients to use moisturizer regularly to combat dry skin and suggests they suck on ice chips to avoid or minimize mouth sores.

Patient navigators like Damaris Perez, whose position at Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute is made possible by the American Cancer Society, can also help women locate help and services.

“Sometimes, they don’t think ahead to the potential side effects of treatment,” Perez said. “For example, they don’t realize they may lose their eyebrows – but that they don’t have to face the world without any.”

Healthy eating, exercise and sleep

While it is important to maintain healthy nutrition, some patients find it difficult because a patient’s taste is altered due to the chemotherapy. Fantom says patients should try to remain active, even if it’s just walking. She notes it can help patients tolerate chemotherapy better.

Get support

Whether through therapy or support groups, Fantom recommends women in treatment seek help to face the physical changes they will experience through treatment.

In the case of breast cancer, many women in treatment struggle with lasting scars and losing their breasts. Only others in treatment or survivors can relate.

“Women going through cancer treatment can talk to one another about how they’re feeling in different stages throughout their treatment plan,” Fantom said. “It’s not only physical, but it’s also emotional – and the emotional aspect is a lot more impactful than the physical sometimes.”

Looking your best to feel your best

Fantom recommends maintaining good hygiene and seeking out makeup tips either online or at a Look Good Feel Better workshop. Sessions are held on a monthly basis at Penn State Hershey. They are free and open to all women with cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or other forms of treatment. Many of the volunteer cosmetologists who run the workshops are survivors themselves and are specially trained to assist patients in treatment.

Participants are given makeup kits and are able to bring their wigs along to be styled and learn how to care for them. The women also learn techniques on skin care and nail care.

“They have makeup on, they have a wig on that looks realistic and they can go out with more confidence,” Fantom said. “The more a patient feels upbeat and hopeful about things, the better they do through treatment and it can actually help with the side effects.”

The women who attend are often helped by meeting others in treatment.

“They actually know what the patient is feeling during different stages; they’ve actually been there. You can always empathize or sympathize but if you’ve not walked those shoes, you don’t really know the intensity of those feelings,” Fantom said.

“When they come into the room, they get to see other patients and they get to interact with one another, they can laugh, they feel that they are on common ground, and it’s a place to feel safe and ask questions,” Perez said.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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