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Strength in Numbers

Support groups are an effective way to diminish the distress associated with cancer, particularly the distress arising from the changes in physical appearance that occur during treatment.

My friend Debbie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, became a solid believer in her cancer support group. She told me participants not only encouraged one another to face the many challenges in fighting this disease, but they also found solace in sharing ideas about ways to camouflage the appearance-related side effects of their treatments; for example, hair loss.

As an alternative to wearing a wig, some women in Debbie's group liked to create unusual head wraps with colourful scarves and turbans. They showed the others how to use a 26-inch (66-cm) or 28-inch (71-cm) square scarf as a basic head wrap; for more elaborate looks, they used larger scarves, up to 35 inches (90 cm). They mixed and matched contrasting colours and prints by using more than one scarf. Or, they used a hat to complement a basic head wrap.

One of the hats that Debbie once needed now sits on the head of the scarecrow in her vegetable garden, as a symbol of her triumph over the disease, and as a tender reminder of her helpful group support.

Moisten Up

If you experience dry, itchy, or flaky skin during chemotherapy, switch to mild soaps and lukewarm water or mild cleansing lotions or cremes. Moisturize often, while skin is still damp. Avoid exfoliating and abrasive skin care products and all products that contain alcohol.

Both men and women can use concealers to hide facial discolorations and dark circles under the eyes. Alternatively, choose a tinted moisturizer and smooth it on as you would any other face lotion. Be sure to consult with your doctor before using new skin products during treatment.

Dry, cracked hands and feet and brittle nails are other side effects of cancer treatment. If these areas become painful or inflamed, consult your doctor, but often some TLC will bring relief. Keep feet cool, dry, and clean and don't scrub them too vigorously. When clipping finger and toenails, clip gently to avoid cutting the skin. Or treat yourself to a professional manicure or pedicure-just don't allow your cuticles to be cut, and insist on fresh implements or bring your own sanitized ones. A little bit of moisturizer several times a day will keep hands supple and the skin pain-free during cancer care.

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