A simple nail balm that could greatly improve the quality of life of cancer patients is being tested.

Formulated by Robert Thomas, a cancer doctor at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, it contains natural oils and plant extracts believed to be offer protection against the ravages of chemotherapy.

Just as powerful cancer drugs can make hair fall out, they can also make nails fall off. Other symptoms include ridges, blackening and foul-smelling pus, leaving those affected by onycholysis too embarrassed to socialise or go to work.

Even simple tasks, such as picking up or cuddling their children, can be painful.


Professor Thomas said that overall, emotional toll is on a par with hair loss but it is largely ignored. Men and women are both affected, and taxotere - one of the most common, breast, prostate and lung cancer drugs - is the worst offender.

Some petroleum jelly-based balms are available but there is no evidence that they work.

Determined to help patients, the professor has come up with his own recipe for a balm.

Four natural oils - cocoa butter, olive oil, shea butter and beeswax - are included to moisturise the nail and underlying nail bed.

And it is hoped that African sage, eucalyptus, lavender and wintergreen, a plant that contains an aspirin-like chemical, will have antibacterial and antifungal effects. Importantly, they are also rich in chemicals called polyphenols which might protect the nails against the drugs.

Thirty chemotherapy patients will massage the balm into their hands twice a day and the results will be compared with a group using a petroleum jelly cream.

They will all be asked about their quality of life and photos of their nails will be assessed by dermatologists who don't know which cream has been used.

The British Association of Dermatologists said: "People, including GPs and nurses, can be incredibly dismissive about nail problems. A treatment that works would be brilliant."

In the meantime, clear nail varnish can help keep the nails strong and gloves will protect them from extra damage.