Breast cancer treatment can give rise to a variety of skin problems, including itching, peeling, and infections. You can't always prevent them, but there are ways to tackle these conditions as they crop up.
Radiation in particular can make skin appear burned and irritated. "Your skin starts to get red and raw, and it peels—that was the most uncomfortable," says Kerry Apicella, a 62-year-old New Yorker who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.Other potential side effects from radiation include:
- Skin color changes: Fair skin may turn red, while darker complexions can become darker or ashen
- Itching, burning, and tenderness
- Darkening of freckles or moles
- Increased risk for skin cancer (which makes it important to stay out of the sun while undergoing radiation treatment and for a few months afterward)
Chemotherapy for breast cancer can bring a host of skin-related problems such as rashes, dryness, and brittle or discolored nails. Skin infections can become an issue too.Why does this happen? "The weakened immune system no longer prevents what a functional system guards against: bacterial, fungal, and viral infections," says Anthony A. Gaspari, MD, chairman of the department of dermatology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. What should you do for treatment-related skin conditions? "Maintaining skin health requires vigilant sun protection and avoiding strong detergents or soaps," advises Dr. Gaspari. Check out these smart skin-care tips if you're dealing with the side effects of either chemotherapy or radiation.
- Add a gentle moisturizer with SPF 30 or greater to your daily routine.
- Avoid using facial products containing alcohol; they can dry out even oily complexions.
- Wash your face no more than twice a day (unless you exercise), and use a mild, perfume-free cleanser (or one formulated for babies).
- Sleep on your back with your head elevated to reduce facial puffiness.
- Pat—don't rub—dry skin with a mild moisturizer such as Aquaphor.
- Avoid over-the-counter acne medications; they can further irritate your skin.
- Avoid creams or powders that contain metals, as they can interfere with radiation treatment. Check with your doctor if you're unsure if a skin product is right for you.
- Keep nails short, and wear gloves when doing household chores.
- To avoid skin infections, be sure to practice common-sense hygiene: Wash your hands often, shower daily, and clean cuts and scrapes thoroughly.
If your treatment-related skin issues are severe, consult with a dermatologist familiar with the side effects of cancer drugs.