October is national breast cancer awareness month, a time when we come together to support women living with cancer and cancer survivors. The good news is that survival rates are improving.
The American Cancer Society says that the number of women who died from breast cancer dropped about 40 percent in the past 25 years. Still, about 250,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.
Thousands of women go through cancer treatments every day, and though doctors do all they can to eliminate tumors and prevent the spread of cancer cells, women are often left on their own when it comes to side effects. Both radiation and chemotherapy, for instance, can negatively affect the skin.
To make treatments easier on you or a loved one, try these tips.
7 Ways Cancer Treatments Affect Skin—and Potential Solutions
1. Chemotherapy and Radiation Create Dry Skin
Both chemotherapy and radiation can dry out the skin. Chemotherapy affects fast-growing cells, like those in the skin, which makes it harder for skin to hold onto the moisture it has. Radiation treatments, too, dry the surface of skin and create inflammation that makes it harder for skin to stay hydrated.
Solution: Cleanse with lukewarm water (not hot), use a gentle, creamy cleanser, and pat (don’t rub) dry. Then apply an intense, natural moisturizer that will help fragile skin recover. Our Calming Moisture and Body Repair Lotion both have natural oils and shea butter to provide needed moisture to help soothe, nourish and strengthen skin’s barrier.
2. Cancer Treatments Make Skin More Fragile
Skin that is going through cancer treatments is more likely to react to over-the-counter skin care products. The lack of cell turnover, the excess dryness, and the reduced lipids (fats in the skin) create a more fragile outer barrier that is less able to protect skin from harsh chemicals.
Solution: Use only gentle, fragrance-free, and toxin-free products that go easy on your skin. Look for those made specifically for medically treated skin (like CV Skinlabs), and slow down when cleansing and moisturizing. Avoid any acids, even the gentle ones, until cancer treatments are over, and hold off on the exfoliating, too.
3. Radiation Side Effects Increase Inflammation
Radiation treatments can increase inflammation so much that they sometimes cause radiation burns. But chemotherapy can also increase internal inflammation, so that skin suffers from the inside out. Inflammation not only causes swelling and redness, but it can also accelerate the appearance of aging.
Solution: For radiation burns, try cool compresses on the area for short periods of time. Our anti-inflammatory Rescue + Relief Spray also immediately cools on contact and removes heat from the area, while helping calm redness and irritation/aggravated skin. Soothing hydrogel sheets and packs that you can get at the medical and home health store may help with more painful burns. Once the area has calmed down, apply our Restorative Skin Balm for faster healing and repair.
4. Chemotherapy Can Cause a Skin Rash
Not everyone will experience this side effect, but some people may. These types of rashes can resemble acne, but they’re not acne. Instead, they’re made up of pimple-like blotches that may have red skin or dry skin around them, so they look more like an allergic rash than a typical acne breakout.
Solution: Whatever you do, don’t use harsh acne products on a rash like this. They are likely to make it worse. Make sure you’re using sensitive skin, creamy cleansers, or wash with a soothing mixture of chamomile and water. Add ground oatmeal to your bath, and apply a mixture of oatmeal and water to your face to cool irritation and fade redness.
Clay pastes can also reduce symptoms well. Continue to moisturize your skin, too, as it can help to reduce scarring. (Our Calming Moisture and Body Repair Lotion are both great options. They include gluten-free oats and other healing ingredients.) If you want an instant cooling and softening effect, spray some of our Rescue + Relief Spray on the affected area to calm inflammation, reduce redness, soothe the burning, and help balance skin’s condition.
If these treatments don’t work, talk to your doctor or dermatologist. Sometimes a prescription cream or even antibiotics can help.
5. Cancer Treatments Make Lips Look More Chapped
Lips may become drier and more chapped looking during cancer treatments. Chemotherapy treatments kill off younger, faster-growing cells in the lips, so they can’t regenerate as quickly. Lips also have more trouble holding onto moisture.
Solution: Try not to lick or rub your lips. Avoid products with petrolatum in them, as they can make the dryness worse. Look instead for natural ingredients like beeswax and honey. Our Restorative Skin Balm also doubles as a soothing lip treatment packed with natural healing ingredients. Take it with you and apply as needed.
6. Chemotherapy and Radiation Make Skin More Vulnerable to Sun Damage
Because skin becomes drier and more fragile during cancer treatments, that means that it’s less able to protect itself from sun damage. Studies have also found that those who have gone through any type of cancer are more at risk for skin cancer than those who haven’t.
Solution: Use clothes as a first defense against the sun—long-sleeved shirts, pants, and hats. Avoid going out between peak hours (10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), and use sunscreen always. Choose zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as they are the safest types and will protect from both UVA and UVB rays.
7. Chemotherapy and Radiation Can Damage Nails and Lead to Scarring
Fingernails and toenails contain fast-growing cells that can suffer from chemotherapy treatments. Nails may become brittle, thin, or break easily. Radiation treatments can also lead to scarring in some instances.
Solution: Apply our Restorative Skin Balm on cuticles every day to support healthy nail growth and counteract some of the effects of chemotherapy. Avoid using nail polish until after treatments are over, as they can be drying, and most are also toxic. Then make sure you’re keeping your radiation treatment area properly moisturized. Applying our Restorative Skin Balm regularly can help encourage healing and diminish any potential scarring.
How did cancer treatments affect your skin?
“2017 Breast Cancer Statistics Show Survival Rates Improving,” Breastcancer.org, October 17, 2017, https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/2017-stats-show-survival-rates-improving.