Why Skin Care Matters for Patients With Cancer


Summer is time to pay particular attention to skin issues, including for patients with cancer undergoing treatments.

Image of a beach towel with sunglasses and a bottle of sun block.

It's important for patients with cancer to take extra care to protect against skin damage during the hotter summer months.

For patients with cancer, attention to skin care is important, and it's especially so in the summer months, as experts explained.

“Sunlight or ultraviolet radiation causes skin damage, and it’s one of the reasons we have aging symptoms in our skin over time. So, we want to limit extra damage to the skin,” said Julie Ryan Wolf, associate professor in the departments of dermatology and radiation oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

“When [patients] get radiation treatment, that’s added damage to the skin. So, when you’re outside, we want to limit exposure [to the sun]: Use sunscreen, try to not go out and spend a lot of hours midday if you can, or if you are, then make sure your skin’s covered,” said Wolf. “The reason for that is just to minimize any additional damage to the skin and further exacerbation of any skin problems that arise. That [advice is] particularly for radiation patients, but other oncology treatments can also cause many different types of skin reactions, and sun exposure can exacerbate a lot of those.”

In addition to dermatitis, or swelling of the skin, that can be caused by radiation, other cancer-related skin toxicities caused by treatments such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy can include itchiness, rash, light sensitivity, skin and nail pigment changes, inflammation of the hands and feet, thickening skin, and hair loss, according to an international expert consensus co-written by Wolf and published in Supportive Care in Cancer.

Skin toxicities, Wolf and her colleagues noted, are very common among patients undergoing cancer treatment and “can lead to interruption or even discontinuation of anticancer treatment in some patients, translating to suboptimal outcomes.”

“[If you experience skin toxicities] as you’re going through treatment, [it’s important] to notify your physician because there are different medications or topical products that can be recommended that can help manage the symptom[s] or delay the progression,” Wolf said. “It’s really important for patients if they notice any itching or flaking or any erythema [redness] to make sure that they notify their physician so they can just start [using] some products.

“Other ones that we recommend if there is itching are over-the-counter topical steroids like hydrocortisone. But we really only want to use that for a limited period of time, and just use mild soap and warm water to clean the skin. It sounds like these are baseline recommendations, but skin health and protection from external environmental factors that damage the skin is really what we recommend up front.”

Skin Care Tips

Image of skin care tips.

Tips on how patients with cancer can take care of their skin while enjoying the summer.

Yota Batsaras, a national trainer with Look Good Feel Better, a program that teaches beauty techniques to individuals with cancer, shared skin care tips and tricks for patients to keep in mind, especially during the summer months.

  • Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher is recommended at all times, including on the tops of the hands and on areas of the head that may now be exposed to the sun due to treatment-related hair loss.
  • The use of foundation can neutralize a patient's skin tone "if they're feeling like their skin is changing color or changing texture," Batsaras said.
  • Don't hesitate to speak to a doctor if issues arise. "Nobody should wait around to see if something happens or if something gets better. No, that's what your care team is there for," she said.
  • Fragrance-free emollient creams should be used to help with moisturizing, particularly as both heat and air conditioning can make skin feel dry.
  • Patients should stay hydrated. According to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the average radiation therapy patient should drink eight to 12 cups of water daily.
  • In addition to sunscreen, patients should use sun protection such as hats and other items of clothing.
  • For more tips and insights, visit lookgoodfeelbetter.org to view virtual courses.

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