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Changes In Your Skin During Radiation Treatment

The most common side effect of radiation therapy for breast cancer

Skin irritation from radiation therapy is the most common side effect patients report. The irritation occurs in the area being irradiated. Not everyone will experience problems, but for those who do, problems can run the gamut from sunburn-like redness and dryness to significant darkening or peeling of the skin.

The likelihood that problems will develop depends upon the type, dosage, and number of radiation treatments to which the patient has been exposed. Skin problems brought on by radiation therapy are usually limited to the area being treated, and are almost always temporary.

A patient who is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy simultaneously is at increased risk for skin problems from both, and their severity may be increased as well.

Most patients will get advice from their radiation oncologist or the oncologist’s staff on what to expect and how to react to problems that occur with the skin. Patients may also receive specific products or product recommendations to help treat the affected areas.

Here are some general skin care tips for patients undergoing radiation therapy:

  •  Avoid vigorous rubbing or scratching of the skin. If your skin itches and you need relief, contact your doctor and request medication to address the problem.
  •  Take lukewarm, rather than hot baths or showers. Use only mild soap. Pat yourself dry with a towel.
  •  Avoid both hot and cold temperature extremes. No ice packs, heating pads or hot water bottles on the affected area.
  •  Don’t spend too much time in the sun. If you venture outdoors, try to stay in the shade.
  •  Wear loose-fitting clothing made of natural fabrics.
  •  Breast cancer patients who receive radiation to the underarm area are advised to avoid using deodorant under the affected arm. A non-talc powder may be used to absorb moisture and keep underarms or skin folds cool. If the breast is being irradiated, be sure to keep the fold beneath the breast (the bra band area) dry of perspiration and other moisture.
  •  Wear a sports bra if possible, and avoid underwire bras.
  •  Don’t apply any lotion or cream that has not been approved by your oncologist or therapist to the affected area.
  •  Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor for skin care questions, and let him/her know immediately if you experience a rash, hives, uncontrollable itching, moisture or “weeping” in the affected area, or a worsening of any symptoms that you have previously reported.

Radiation therapy patients often have pen marks or tattoos that have been placed on their skin to assist in guiding treatment. Patients should try to avoid washing these marks off. However, if they are accidentally erased or otherwise removed, there is no reason to panic. They can be re-applied by appropriate personnel working with the patient’s oncologist.

While skin care issues aren’t quite as troublesome to most cancer patients as the loss of hair, they still shouldn’t be overlooked as a part of a patient's overall care plan. By working closely with their physician or nurse, patients can keep skin as healthy as possible. All it takes is patience and a little extra effort.