Premature Aging and Cancer Treatment
Too much sun, too much alcohol, too much tobacco -- over-indulging in any of these will have the effect of premature aging. The damaging, drying effects on the skin cause discoloration, wrinkles, and reduced elasticity. It is also well known that each is also associated with increased cancer risk. But often overlooked in the discussion of premature aging is cancer treatment, itself.
Different treatments contribute to the aging process.
Lasting effects of surgeryy
Any time that the body goes through trauma, physical ramifications can be expected. In some cases, there are actual benefits. Broken bones often heal stronger than they were before the break. But for a similar reason that broken bones may heal stronger, trauma to tissue and muscles tends to result in scar tissue that not only affects appearance but may also change the flexibility and resilience of the affected area.
In most cases, the healing process will slowly restore the tissue, perhaps even with few or no visible reminders. However, resection of a lung or other organ may have lasting effects beyond the merely cosmetic. The body may have to work harder to compensate for a removed kidney, for instance, and while a person can survive quite handily with only one lung, it is not ideal, especially if the patient happens to contract a viral or bacterial infection. Still, surgery is the single most effective cure for many cancers; caught early enough, many patients will have their cancer removed and never experience a recurrence.
Side effects of radiation
While it is common to hear the fear-mongering cries that radiotherapy "burns" the patient, it is important to retain a realistic perspective about what modern techniques really do. Radiotherapy is among the most time-tested methods of dealing with inoperable tumors and, in instances where post-surgical radiation is used, ensuring that the risk of recurrence is minimized in case the whole tumor might not have been removed. Depending on the style of radiotherapy being used and the size of the area being treated, there may be very minimal effects.
Still, radiation is hard on the affected tissue. The whole body may feel ill after treatment, though it is more common now that patients are able to undergo radiotherapy with few side effects. A rule of thumb, however, is that the broader the area being irradiated and the longer the exposure will be, the more damage will be done to healthy tissue. It is rare when patients experience severe burns like they may have in the early days of radiotherapy treatment.
Common skin conditions include the dry, flaking, and peeling skin of radiation dermatitis, as well as milder effects that mirror sunburn or slight blistering. Additionally, radiation can cause fatigue, hair loss, and bodily stress. The good news is that most of these side effects are temporary. Too much "sunburn" causes the skin to dry out and wrinkle prematurely, however, regardless of whether that burn is from natural sunlight or targeted radiotherapy.
Visible side effects of chemotherapy
Chemo and other drug-based cancer treatments can have a very visible effect on the patient's skin. Not all patients experience skin issues, but those that do may notice that their medication causes the skin to dry out, lose elasticity, develop spotty discoloration, or break out in acne. Rashes range from very minor and temporary to long-lasting ones that require antibiotics to control, much like the dreaded teenage cystic acne many patients had hoped they had outgrown and would never need to face again. Beyond changes to the texture or color of the skin, chemotherapy can also affect a patient's nails and hair.
For both radiotherapy and chemotherapy, the patient may be increasingly photosensitive. In this case, limiting exposure to direct sunlight is essential to minimize or avoid unnecessary additional skin damage.
Scars tell our story
Issues of vanity and youth culture aside, for most patients it will probably be worth it to trade the "you look so young for your age" compliments for the "it is so nice to spend time with you" type. In truth, very little of our quality of life is rooted in how quickly our skin snaps back when pinched or whether it is a completely even and smooth color. Our scars and our wrinkles, after all, tell something of a story. They help reveal our character, offering a glimpse into a life lived.1-10
We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
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