After a cancer diagnosis, you may find yourself wearing a host of new labels: warrior, fighter, patient, stage 2, stage 3… some labels are less welcome than others. If you have to go through chemotherapy, you can also add Begruding-Side-Effect-Expert to the list. There are almost as many chemotherapy side effects as there are types of cancer.
Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) is a side effect that doesn’t get a lot of headlines, but when the weather turns colder, the nagging pain in your hand and feet can be hard to ignore. CIPN is a side effect of some chemotherapy drugs that cause nerve damage in the extremities. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to pain and compromised mobility.
Cold weather slows circulation to the hands and feet, and that can make CIPN symptoms worse. And because the nerves are damaged, it may be harder for someone to tell when they’re too cold for too long.
But enough doom and gloom—there are ways to manage CIPN, even in winter. In addition to medications a doctor can prescribe, there are some simple and effective ways to keep your fingers and toes as healthy as possible. Here are 7 ways to combat CIPN when the weather turns chilly:
1. Stay Warm, of course!
This might seem obvious, but staying warm is more important, and more difficult, when you’re dealing with CIPN. When you’re outside, especially if you’re having fun, you may not realize how cold you are until you start to thaw out and your fingers start to throb. Keeping your whole body warm can promote circulation to your feet and hands, so dress warmly from head to toe and take warming breaks indoors or in a heated car when you’re outside in cold weather.
2. Protect Hands And Feet
Be prepared at all times to keep your feet and hands warm. Your extremities get cold quickly, and with neuropathy you may not realize just how cold they are until the damage has been done. Grab a pair of gloves and good shoes even if you’re only popping out for a little bit. Keep extra socks and gloves on hand so you’re ready if your current pair gets wet. Make a habit of making sure your fingers and toes are always snug, even if it’s not “that cold.”
3. Stop Smoking
Smoking can slow your circulation by causing your blood vessels to constrict. This means less blood flow to the skin which further reduces your ability to keep those fingers and toes, and the rest of your body, nice and toasty.
4. Encourage blood flow
When we’re cold, it’s hard to keep moving. We just want to curl up and shiver! But that only further restricts blood flow. Avoid positions that cut off circulation, like clenched hands or crossed legs, but be sure to keep your joints moving, even if it’s just wiggling your fingers and toes. Give your blood an excuse to get to your hands and feet to keep them from getting stiff and painful.
While it’s important to keep your fingers and toes moving, regular cardiovascular exercise promotes stronger overall circulation, which will fight the effects of neuropathy long-term. Regular exercise also improves energy levels, and you don’t have to run marathons. Ask your doctor about what exercises are appropriate post-treatment, and commit to caring for yourself through movement.
6. Stay Dry
Wet feet are cold feet, and it’s not as easy to tell if your feet are wet as you might think when dealing with CIPN. Make sure your shoes are appropriate for the weather, keep dry socks on hand, and check your feet when you get home. Even if you manage to keep your feet warm, damp toes can be a breeding ground for infections, which are harder to fight off with neuropathy. Stay warm. Stay dry. Stay safe!
7. Get a massage
A gentle massage, whether from a professional, a loved one, or yourself, can increase circulation, increase warmth, and be delightfully relaxing. Even just gently rubbing your fingers and toes can help!
All the side effects of chemotherapy, long- and short-term, can leave you feeling like you have a never-ending laundry list of things to do to keep yourself healthy. It’s rough. As much as possible, recruit help and find ways to make managing symptoms feel more like self-care: buy pretty gloves, find relaxing exercise classes, and remind yourself that you’re worth the effort—because you are!
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.