Yes, there are photos and stories online about nails that fall out after chemotherapy. But fortunately most women don’t have such bad luck. Everyone does suffer from weak and brittle nails, however. So how do you keep your nails healthy for as long as possible during your chemo treatments? What can you do beforehand to limit the damage? And how do your nails recover after the chemo? Find out in these 10 fascinating facts about chemo and nails.
1/ What side-effects can chemotherapy have on my nails?
Chemotherapy, especially the types with taxanes (such as Taxotere) may cause your nails to become dry, brittle and fragile. They may also discolour or develop grooves or ridges and at worst they may fall off. Whether or not you experience these side-effects depends on the type of chemo and the doses. Ask your nurse or doctor for more information. And here’s a handy tip: while these side-effects are often difficult to prevent, there is a lot you can do to deal with the damaging effect of chemo on your nails.
2/ How should I care for my nails?
Keep your nails short as soon as you start chemo. Make sure the edges are straight and smooth, so not too short on the outside. This prevents ingrown nails or possible infections. Like your skin, your nails will benefit from some additional moisturising to prevent dryness during chemo. You can use a special nail oil or cream for this, but a good nourishing hand cream might well be all you need. Massage the cream into your cuticles, the skin around your nails, and the nails themselves. And don’t forget your toenails!
3/ Chemo: can I use nail polish?
Your nails will suffer less if you go for natural nails. Doctors advise against wearing nail polish all the time. But you can wear nail polish on special occasions if you feel like it. It is recommended to use nail polish without alcohol or acetone. Start by applying a colourless, nourishing base coat so that the colour does not penetrate your brittle nail. Remove your nail polish the same day if possible, or the next day, using a gentle nail polish remover without acetone or other aggressive ingredients.
4/ Why should I wear gloves when cleaning or doing the dishes?
For two reasons. You will avoid bumping your nails, which may break or split them. And you also reduce the risk of cuts and scratches, for example when gardening or doing a DIY job. Wounds take longer to heal during chemo and can result in infections, something you must avoid at all costs if lymph nodes were removed during surgery (from your armpit, for example).
Here’s another tip: you should also wear gloves when doing the dishes. Brittle chemo nails loathe cleaning products. It’s best to avoid corrosive cleaning products altogether.
5/ Does it hurt to bite your nails?
Nail biting is definitely not a good idea. Your nails are already very brittle because of the chemo and biting them will only aggravate the problem. You should avoid this at all costs, especially if you have a habit of chewing the skin around your nails. The last thing you need during chemo are wounds on your hands and fingers as they are exposed to so many bacteria on a daily basis.
6/ Can vitamins or supplements help counteract typical ‘chemo nails’?
Pharmacies sell all kinds of vitamins and supplements for stronger nails. In many cases, however, their effect has not been scientifically proven, or not sufficiently. What’s more, you have to be careful when taking supplements during chemotherapy. Not all supplements are completely harmless. Some substances or ingredients may interfere with the effects of the chemo or other medication. If you have any questions, talk to your doctor and remember always to inform your nurse or doctor of any supplements or additional therapies you are taking.
7/ Can I have a manicure or pedicure during chemotherapy?
Do you want your nails to look fabulous before you start chemo? Then by all means, go and get them done before your very first chemo treatment. And what if you want to continue pampering yourself during chemo? Feel free to keep getting the occasional manicure or pedicure but make sure that nothing happens that might cause wounds or infections. Doctors advise against having your cuticles trimmed. A relaxing hand massage, a professional manicure or a super-nourishing mask can work wonders.
Do you have serious problems with your nails (on your hands or feet)? Talk to your doctor. Some hospitals have specially-trained medical manicure and pedicure professionals in their oncology team, or they might be able to refer you to a trained specialist.
8/ Do I have to wear those horribly cold frozen gloves in hospital?
Most hospitals will require you to wear frozen gloves if they are administering taxane-based chemo treatments. The cold reduces the blood circulation in your hands, preventing the chemo from reaching your nails. The cold can be very intense for the first few minutes and some patients find it really unpleasant. But the long-term effects outweigh the temporary discomfort. Ask for an extra blanket or take a warm wrap with you. Tip: don’t forget your feet! If the hospital doesn’t have special ‘cold socks’, request an additional pair of gloves and put them on your feet.
9/ How long will it take before my nails look normal again after my cancer treatment?
Your nails will recover after the chemo. For some people this takes a few months and for others a year or longer. If you experience difficulties or pain during your recovery, talk to your doctor. They can refer you to specialists for special treatments if necessary.
10/ Does hormone therapy to treat breast cancer have an effect on my nails?
Hormone therapy may affect your nails. They might be left brittle and dry long after your chemotherapy has ended, and continue to split. The tips for protecting them are essential the same as for chemotherapy: keep your nails trimmed, moisturise them and keep products and treatments that make them even more brittle to a minimum.
Chemo nails? Remember that we always look at the effects of chemo in the majority of people. Everyone’s body responds differently to chemotherapy and exceptions to the rule are always possible. Do you have doubts or questions? Talk to your doctor, oncology coach or nurse. Their personalised advice takes precedence over our tips.