A Journey With Breast Cancer Part 5: Nails

By Jeanne Romano

My whole life I bit my nails. I tried everything: icky tasting gunk, miracle cure creams, gelatin vitamins and even hypnosis. Oooh. Of course nothing worked. Finally in my 30s I turned to falsies. No not those. I had plenty of that –I’m talking about acrylics. I was so captivated by my fake nails that I changed my polish every day. Having beautiful nails opened a whole new world to me, not to mention a pop-top or two.

Fast forward 15 or so years: “Jeanne, you have breast cancer.” The terrible news was followed by all the gory little details. Blah… blah… blah… then, “And you’ll need to avoid manicures, pedicures and the use of artificial nails! No, not my nails!

I know what you’re thinking. How can nails be such sore spot in the grand scheme of cancer? To me it just felt like yet another assault on my body, on my femininity. I knew that my immune system would be compromised and apparently any little nick or cut especially on my fingers could actually create a serious infection requiring antibiotics and possibly hospitalization. So not only were manicures and my glorious fake nails out, I had to stop picking at the dry skin around my cuticles – extremely dry skin because of the chemo – oh the irony of it all.

The fix: I used a pair of sterile nail clippers. Never peeled or tore off any skin. Not that I had to be told that biting my nails or picking at my cuticles was bad habit (not just a matter of aesthetics). It had to stop. It was particularly important on the hand of the arm that had lymph node dissections. Remember, your skin and your fingernails protect your hand and arm from infection.

But wait, there’s more… Nail discoloration, nail detachment, and the less than groovy grooves. The medical experts writing for DermNet NZ lists onycholysis and onchomadesis as possible side effects of chemotherapy.

Big words and science alert:

“Onycholysis is the detachment of the nail from the nail bed, or the skin below the nail. The nail begins to detach at the top of the nail and progresses back to the cuticle. This side effect occurs specifically with the group of chemotherapy drugs containing taxane. Onchomadesis is the loss of the entire fingernail.

The development of “Beau’s lines” is also on the list of chemotherapy side effects. Beau’s lines are horizontal grooves that appear on the nails. They result from an interruption in the production of keratin. Fingernails and toenails, which you most likely know, consist of keratin, which is a fibrous protein.

Now that I was forced to go au natural I minimized these effects on my nails by soaking my hands and feet in ice water. It was cold but worth the discomfort.

I also messaged my hands and fingers everyday to increase the blood flow.  Because I used natural or organic products before my cancer I looked for the same (if not more intense) ingredients to help with my hands, cuticles and nails.

My three favorite brands were and continue to be:

Burt’s Bees Lemon-Butter Cuticle Creme offers calming combinations of natural ingredients, including vitamin E – which was wonderful for the intensive care of my chemo-dry cuticles, brittle nails and chapped, cracked fingertips.

de~luxe has a fabulous line of “healing” products, many using the nut of the African Shea Tree which provides powerful nourishment and healing to severely dry skin. According to their inserts, this particular hand cream is authentic “treatment grade” that is naturally rich in anti-oxidants and vitamins A & E.

Avalon Organics Hand & Body Lotion has a triple dose of rich lipid sources, certified organic Sunflower, Flaxseed and Coconut Oils. It’s long-lasting and easily absorbed. With an important bonus for chemo patients of Beta Glucan for cellular renewal.

It may take weeks to months, once you finish treatment, for your nails to grow out of these chemo effects and resemble your old nails.  I wish I could promise all the knowledge, ice water, creams and messaging will make your nails better – but I can’t. However I will say that I was able to keep my nails as healthy as possible while they were under attack. And while we may not be able to cure cancer, this critical interruption in my bad habit, cured my nail biting.

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  • Cameron Von St. James

    Hi,

    I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?

    Thanks,

    Cameron

    cameronvsj(at)gmail.com