Hair loss, dry skin, and damaged nails are common side effects of chemo and can be difficult to manage. Making a few changes to my beauty routine helped me feel better and gave me a much-needed sense of control.
When I received the news I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and would undergo a regimen of intense chemotherapy, my mind ran through the expected gamut of fears: Would it make me incredibly ill? Would I be able to juggle treatment with work and parenting my small child? Would the chemo actually work on my cancer?
But among those concerns, another hit me just as hard: Will I lose my hair?
Worrying about hair loss at a time when my life was at risk felt frivolous and vain, but once my locks actually fell out, I realized my fears were justified. Being bald (and eyebrowless) made me feel conspicuous, different, and obviously sick. On top of that, at a time when we lose so much — trust in our bodies, months and even years of time, our breasts in their natural form — losing my hair felt unnecessarily cruel.
As I continued treatment and moved into survivorship, I learned that managing hair loss — not to mention chemo curl regrowth — was just the beginning of how cancer would change how I saw myself and the beauty routines that made me look and feel good. But along the way, I learned some tricks and tips that made my post-cancer beauty routine easier and more effective.
Losing the hair on top of my head was pretty distressing, but shedding other hair — such as my eyelashes and eyebrows — proved more of a challenge. I could throw on a hat or wig to mask my baldness, but filling in my patchy eyebrows and lashes was trickier.
While the false lash route feels tempting, adhesives can be irritating to skin that’s extra sensitive from chemo. Instead, I used a soft eyeliner pencil to line my eyes, smudging just a little to give the effect of lashes.
My eyebrows didn’t totally fall out, but they were sparse enough to need some help, so I used a brow pencil to help fill in the gaps. Once my hair grew back, my brows grew in more but never returned to their former glory, so nowadays, I use a tinted brow gel to fill in and tame unruly hairs. If the idea of color makes you nervous, clear brow gel works just as well for shaping.
At a time when we lose so much — trust in our bodies, months and even years of time, our breasts in their natural form — losing my hair felt unnecessarily cruel.
Once chemo ended, my head began to sprout downy peach fuzz that morphed into tight, kinky coils commonly known as “chemo curls.” Since my hair had been slightly wavy at best prior to cancer, my first instinct was to straighten my unruly curls. I tried everything from fancy blow-dryers to the world’s tiniest flat iron, but what worked best was actually accepting my curls and learning to care for them rather than try to wrestle them into submission.
The first and most important lesson I learned in curl maintenance was to ditch the regular shampoo for a paraben-, sulfate-, and lather-free formula. Using lather-free shampoo or simply washing with conditioner prevents stripping excess moisture from your tresses, which can cause frizz. Then, rather than blow-drying, I would apply a smoothing serum or cream and let my curls air-dry.
And though it felt counterintuitive, I began getting more frequent haircuts as my hair grew back to ensure even growth and avoid any unfortunate mullet situations from forming.
Whether you receive chemotherapy, radiation, or both, cancer treatment can wreak havoc on your skin. The dehydrating effects of chemo drugs can leave your skin dry and sensitive, and if you’ve lost your hair, suddenly, a large swath of skin you never worried about is exposed and in need of care.
While I’d been a bit haphazard with my moisturizer use before cancer, once I entered treatment, it became a must morning and night. To minimize irritation, I opted for fragrance- and dye-free creams, such as Eucerin or Aveeno, to keep the skin on my body and face hydrated. Coconut oil also works great on parched skin.
Another addition to my skin care routine? Sunscreen. Sure, I’d always slathered it on prior to beach or pool days, but I officially became a daily user during treatment. Aside from protecting myself from another form of cancer, wearing sunscreen was essential to keep my sensitive skin — particularly on my newly exposed scalp — free of additional irritation. Again, I opted for fragrance-free formulas to minimize adverse reactions.
One of the most surprising changes my body experienced during and after chemo was the impact the drugs had on my nails. Taxane drugs, such as docetaxel (Taxotere), paclitaxel (Taxol), and albumin-bound paclitaxel (Abraxane) in particular, can cause damage to nails, including detachment — I actually lost a big toenail after Taxol infusions. Other chemo drugs can cause nails to become discolored, develop ridges or indentations, or experience changes in thickness.
While I’d been a bit haphazard with my moisturizer use before cancer, once I entered treatment, it became a must morning and night.
During and after treatment, I realized my nails had to become a priority. I began keeping them clipped short, since they would easily break, and I also began using cuticle cream to help combat dryness and hangnails. And though I’d been a nail-biter in the past, I had to break myself of the habit to preserve my fragile nails.
I also found keeping my nails painted with a gel polish helped prevent breakage. And with so many at-home gel polish options available now, I didn’t even have to visit a salon to ensure my nails looked good.
Breast cancer and its accompanying treatment left me looking and feeling like a different person. But amid the uncertainty of treatment and navigating survivorship, practicing beauty routines catered to my changing body’s needs did more than make me feel better about how I looked. Those acts of self-care also gave me a much-needed sense of control in a time that felt frightening and chaotic.
Medically reviewed on January 11, 2023
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