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What Happens to My Skin During Radiation Therapy?


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You will need to protect your skin from the sun even after radiation therapy is over.

Radiation therapy causes skin cells to break down and die. When people get radiation almost every day, their skin cells do not have enough time to grow back between treatments. Skin changes can happen on any part of the body that gets radiation. Here are some common skin changes:

Redness Your skin in the treatment area may look as if you have a mild to severe sunburn or tan. This can occur on any part of your body where you are getting radiation.

Pruritus The skin in your treatment area may itch so much that you always feel like scratching. This causes problems because scratching too much can lead to skin breakdown and infection.

Dry and peeling skin This is when the skin in your treatment area gets very dry – much drier than normal. In fact, your skin may be so dry that it peels like it does after a sunburn.

Moist reaction Radiation kills skin cells in your treatment area, causing your skin to peel off faster than it can grow back. When this happens, you can get sores or ulcers. The skin in your treatment area can also become wet, sore, or infected. This is more common where you have skin folds, such as your buttocks, behind your ears, or under your breasts. It may also occur where your skin is very thin, such as your neck.

Radiation kills skin cells in your treatment area, causing your skin to peel off faster than it can grow back.

Swollen skin The skin in your treatment area may be swollen and puffy. Skin changes may start a few weeks after you begin radiation therapy. Many of these changes often go away a few weeks after treatment is over. But even after radiation therapy ends, you may still have skin changes. Your treated skin may always look darker and blotchy. It may feel very dry or thicker than before. And you may always burn quickly and be sensitive to the sun. You will always be at risk for skin cancer in the treatment area.

Managing Skin Changes
Good skin care is the first step to managing skin changes during radiation therapy. Be gentle and do not rub, scrub, or scratch in the treatment area. Also, use creams that your doctor prescribes.

Do not put anything on your skin that is very hot or cold. This means not using heating pads, ice packs, or other hot or cold items on the treatment area. It also means washing with lukewarm water.

Be gentle when you shower or take a bath. Make sure to use a mild soap that does not have fragrance or deodorant in it. Dry yourself with a soft towel by patting, not rubbing, your skin. Be careful not to wash off the ink markings that you need for radiation therapy. You can take a lukewarm shower every day. If you prefer to take a lukewarm bath, do so only every other day and soak for less than 30 minutes. Ask your doctor or nurse if you can shave the treated area. If you can shave, use an electric razor and do not use pre-shave lotion.

Use only those lotions and skin products that your doctor or nurse suggests. If you are using a prescribed cream for a skin problem or acne, you must tell your doctor or nurse before you begin radiation treatment. Check with your doctor or nurse before using bubble bath, cornstarch, cream, deodorant, hair removers, makeup, oil, ointment, perfume, powder, soap, or sunscreen.

Wear soft clothes and use soft bed sheets. Do not wear clothes that are tight, such as spandex and pantyhose. Do not put bandages, Band-Aids®, or other types of sticky tape on your skin in the treatment area. Talk with your doctor or nurse about ways to bandage without tape.

Protect your skin from the sun every day. The sun can burn you even on cloudy days or when you are outside for just a few minutes. You will need to protect your skin from the sun even after radiation therapy is over, since you will have an increased risk of skin cancer for the rest of your life.

If you have radiation therapy to the rectal area, you are likely to have skin problems. These problems are often worse after a bowel movement. Clean yourself with a baby wipe or squirt of water from a spray bottle. Also, ask your nurse about sitz baths (a warmwater bath taken in a sitting position that covers only the hips and buttocks).

Some skin changes can be very serious. Your treatment team will check for skin changes each time you have radiation therapy. Make sure to report any skin changes that you notice to your doctor or nurse. Medicines can help with some skin changes, including antibiotics to treat infection and lotions and gels to protect, moisturize, and give relief.

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Source: National Cancer Institute

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2012.

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