Katie Boylan (Foxrock, Dublin) was diagnosed with colon cancer in February of this year. She was kind enough to offer to let us interview her in regards to the effects of cancer and cancer treatments on the skin.
Katie finished her treatment on the 8th of August and is currently awaiting surgery.
Thank you for letting us interview you, Katie.
No problem. I’ve never been one to keep it to myself, I’ve always been very open about it. The more good thoughts, the better.
When did you start noticing the negative effects of your cancer treatments on your skin?
I was diagnosed in February, two days after my birthday. I was sick for about 6 weeks and I didn’t know what was wrong. My skin at the time was dull and grey. I didn’t notice any real effects on my skin until two weeks into chemotherapy. For me, I started having chemotherapy on its own and then had chemotherapy and radiation therapy together. Some peoples’ treatments would be different, but that’s how it was for me.
What were the effects on your skin?
I had a few different chemotherapies and they each had different side effects. With my first chemotherapy, I was told I’d get a rash and it could be all over my body or in certain places. I didn’t really get a rash at all on my body but I did get one on my face which was lucky in some ways but not in others, as it’s the part of you that people see. The rash was very red and I also got really bad teenage-like spots, like whiteheads around my nose and chin and on the sides of my nose.
The next chemotherapy I was put on, I got really, really, really dry skin. You’d rub my arm and bits of skin would flake off and that was all over my body. My face still had the teenage skin. One big thing was that the skin between my fingers was so dry that it was cracking. When I started radiation, my dry skin got much worse. The fingers were awful though – when you have cancer, you have to really careful about infection and have to wash your hands a lot and many soaps were very harsh on the dryness.
What products or treatments were recommended for your skin and were they helpful?
I actually wasn’t recommended a lot by the hospital. They were amazing when it came to the medical care point of view and lovely and nice but they didn’t recommend much at all. They suggested E45 cream for the dry skin and I didn’t find it brilliant. They also recommended medicinal cream for the rash on my body but it couldn’t be used on my face.
Because so many chemicals were being pumped into me throughout my treatment, I wanted to use more natural products, for example, products that were chemical-free and paraben-free. For me, the MooGoo products were great, especially MooGoo’s Soothing MSM Cream. As well as that, the Trilogy Ultra Hydrating Hand Cream really helped with the dryness of my hands. I was given a Dr. Hauschka gift set too so I switched between those three.
How did you feel in terms of your self esteem? Did your skin cause you to feel uncomfortable in yourself?
Yes, definitely. There’s a huge psychological side to having cancer, you feel shit in yourself anyway. You’re not feeling well and you think “I don’t look well either”, “I have terrible skin”. I didn’t feel great in myself and when I spoke to everyone around me, they told me that it wasn’t that bad.
How was your skin before the treatment?
My skin wasn’t perfect-perfect but I had never had any major issues with my skin. Even in my teenage years, I was lucky as a lot of my friends had more severe problems, ending up with pockmarks and things like that. Any issues I had would’ve been hormonal, around the time of my period and nothing really bad. It was difficult to deal with changes in my skin on top of having cancer.
Do you have any advice for people going through cancer or cancer treatment in regards to skin?
The one thing that I would say would be it will get better once the treatment stops. My treatment stopped not even a month ago (*Katie was interviewed in September) and my skin has gotten way better. I don’t know if that happens for everyone.
For me, there were some issues going down the non-chemical skincare routes. As the majority of these products are sold in pharmacies or health shops, the staff didn’t know the products inside out like they would if they were cosmeceutical products from a clinic or a salon. It was slightly annoying.
My advice would be to try to find helpful staff who have researched the product a lot. These products are usually around 20 euro a pop and it adds up. Suddenly, you’ve spent 100 quid without finding the moisturiser you want.
Also, don’t stress over your skin as it will improve. When I tried to cover it up with makeup, it got worse. Because of this, I didn’t wear any makeup during treatment, just mascara really. I did a gentle face wash in the evenings, not a full scrub-off-your-makeup big kind of routine.
My hair thinned out a lot, I didn’t lose it though thankfully. Not washing it everyday and not heat styling it helped a lot. Not wearing makeup helped with the skin irritation too.
What’s most important is to try to find the products that work for you, as the natural route maybe isn’t for everyone.
You went to the Rainforest Day Spa in Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow recently. What did you think of it?
I went to the Rainforest Day Spa as they provide a Spa Cancer Care treatment. It was lovely, and the therapist, Emily, clearly knew her stuff. She was great and it was so nice to have a pamper day, which I haven’t done since my diagnosis. I really, really liked it and it consisted of a facial and a head, neck and shoulder massage. It was done with Yon-ka treatments so it was very similar to a Yon-ka facial and it included a scalp massage to promote hair growth. I would highly recommend it.
Has your skin improved since finishing treatment?
Yes, it definitely has. I have some marks left over from the spots but the dryness is totally gone. After treatment, I’ve ended up with the little bumps on the back of my arms (keratosis pilaris). I don’t know if it has to do with bad circulation or not exercising. I also lost a lot of weight. Outside of that, my skin is back to how it was.
One weird thing that happened was that my eyebrows went very dark. They didn’t fall out, I just noticed that they got way darker. I used to tint them but now I don’t have to. I recently met a friend for the first time since the diagnosis and they said “your eyebrows look amazing – did you get them done?”. I told her I haven’t gotten them done in 9 months.
Do you have any general advice for people going through cancer?
Try to stay positive. It’s a really tough process and treatment is very tough. I think you have to try and stay positive because if you don’t, you’ll be sucked into a cycle of negativity. That’s the way I wanted to try and get through it; positively. I also think you need a really good support network around you.
I was lucky as I was already at home at the time, saving to buy a place, so I had my parents there with me. If you don’t already have people around you, you have to reach out for support. It is very tough at times. I had an amazing support network around me with my parents, brother, extended family, friends & work colleagues all supporting me from the start, they were all amazing in different ways.
The mental health side of cancer was something I’d never thought about before, luckily I’d never had to as I’d never really been sick before. I was never an anxious person before, of course, everyone is to some extent but during treatments, my anxiety was off the charts. You need to talk to someone, it doesn’t have to be a healthcare professional, even just someone near you.
The nurses in the hospital are amazing in regards to Xanax and pills. I was a bit like I didn’t want to take too much because of all the chemicals already inside me. The nurse said to me “you’re going through so much, why would you make things more difficult for yourself?”. Pills and things like that are there to help you get through it and that’s what is most important.
I explored the holistic and nutritional side of things too, it was amazing for me. I was having Reiki done and saw a nutritionist. It really helped with my mental health. I kept up going to physiotherapy too, and it all ties in.
I was fortunate (well, not completely, but in this case) in that one of my best friends had cancer years ago. He was amazing to talk to. He got everything; the anxiety, what I was thinking and why I was thinking it. Nobody really got it unless they’ve gone through it. For me, the psychologists and psychotherapists in the hospital were not brilliant but that’s how it is, you need to find someone who suits you.
You have to go on how you’re feeling – some days you want to see people, some days you want to lie flat and eat ice cream. Don’t be afraid to tell people “I don’t want to see you today”. Visitors always stay longer than they say they will. I was accommodating people at the beginning, but you have to be selfish because you are literally getting better.
You need to focus on just getting better and try not to worry about how people near you are dealing with it. You shouldn’t be supporting them, they should be supporting you. My parents were adamant from the start that I wasn’t to support them. They talked to each other and close friends. My mum said “stop asking me if I’m okay”, as I was always stressing over how they were feeling.
Speak up if something doesn’t feel right. Only you know your body and if something feels wrong, it’s probably wrong. When something feels right, it’s probably right. Trust the medical team and have confidence. I changed one surgeon because I didn’t feel we were on the same page at all. My oncologist was just amazing and I’m so happy with the team I have now since I switched surgeon. You need to feel that you trust them because they’re going to cure you, they have to have your back.
Some of the best advice I received was from my yoga teacher, who always used to say “this too shall pass”. You will laugh again; I remember being in the hospital saying to my mum “God, am I ever going to laugh again?” and she went to stand up and tripped and the pair of us fell around laughing.
Have faith that it will work out. The only alternative is that you get negative. Negativity while dealing with cancer would be horrible.
If you are currently going through cancer treatment and your skin has changed, please speak to your nurse, doctor or advisor. The information relayed in this article is from experience and should not be taken as medical advice.