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Primary Skin: Care of Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Information for people having radiation to their skin.
Side Effects

Radiation treatment damages cancer cells but can also affect normal tissues in the treatment area. Damage to normal tissues may cause side effects.

These side effects will vary depending on:

  • The amount of radiation prescribed.
  • The area of your body being treated.
  • The size of the treatment area.
  • Whether or not you are having chemotherapy.

Your BC Cancer health care team will explain which side effects you may have during or after your treatment. You will see a nurse or a doctor regularly during your treatment to talk about your radiation side effects. The doctor you see may not be your radiation oncologist.

If you have a problem or concern between visits with the nurse or doctor, please talk to your radiation therapists who can help you right away.

Skin Care

For skin cancers, most of the radiation is targeted at the skin surface. This will cause a skin reaction in the treated area. The reaction will get worse through treatment and can continue for several weeks after treatment is complete.

Your skin will react in different ways:

  • Skin may become warm, dry or itchy.
  • Skin may change colour (become pink, red, darker or tanned looking).
  • You may lose hair in the treated area.
  • You may have some swelling in the treated area.
  • The treated skin may sweat less than before.
  • A blister or open sore may develop.
  • A scab may form.

Most skin reactions begin within the first week or so of starting treatment, but timing can be different for each person.  Some people do not have a skin reaction until after their radiation treatment is finished.

Skin reactions usually go away a few weeks after your last treatment. Some skin changes, like skin darkening or scarring, can be permanent (they will never go away).

Here are some tips to protect your skin and help it feel better:

Lifestyle and well-being

  • Be very gentle with the skin in the treated area.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing.
  • Protect the treated skin from wind and direct sunlight. If you cannot cover the area, use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • It is okay to swim as long as your skin is not broken or irritated. It is best to shower right away after swimming: gently wash off the chlorine, pat dry and apply moisturizer

Hygiene and moisturizing

  • Keep your skin moisturized to prevent dryness. There is no evidence that any cream or product is better for this. If you like a certain product or brand, please continue to use it.
  • If you do not have a moisturizer, use one that is water-based (water or aqua is the first ingredient on the list).
  • Once you start your radiation treatment, use the moisturizer many times each day.
  • You can use deodorants and anti-perspirants.
  • When you bathe or shower, use warm water (not hot) and pat dry with a soft towel.
  • Use an electric razor if you want to shave.
  • If you have a skin reaction, your BC Cancer health care team may ask you to use a steroid-based cream or antibiotic on the treated area.

'Do Nots' for the treatment area

  • Do not use perfume, alcohol, astringents, and adhesives on the treated skin.
  • Avoid extremes of hot or cold (heating pads, ice packs, saunas, etc).
  • Do not use hot tubs or Jacuzzis®.
  • Do not rub, scratch, or massage the treated skin.

If you do develop a skin reaction during, or after, treatment:

  • Do not use soap on the treated skin.
  • If the skin has broken down, clean the area with a salt water solution (normal saline). Ask your BC Cancer health care team for the normal saline recipe.
  • Your BC Cancer health care team may also give you an ointment, steroid-based cream or antibiotic to put on the treatment area.
  • If a scab form, do not remove it. Leave it alone and let it fall off naturally.

Fatigue

Fatigue is a feeling of extreme tiredness. If you are fatigued, you may want to rest and sleep more than is normal for you.

There are many causes of fatigue:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Previous treatments
  • Emotional stress
  • Changes in lifestyle

You may be able to continue your normal lifestyle or you may need to adjust your routine according to your energy level. For more information, go to our Managing Fatigue page.

Support Services

BC Cancer helps those living with or affected by cancer to cope with the physical, practical, emotional, and psychological aspects of their care.

If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your BC Cancer health care team.

Alcohol and Smoking

Alcohol and Smoking

Please try not to smoke during your treatment. Smoking may cause more irritation and increase the side effects you experience.

Stopping smoking has major and immediate benefits for people of all ages. It:

  • Helps improve your body's ability to heal.
  • Improves your body's response to cancer treatment.
  • Lowers the risk of your cancer returning or another cancer developing.
  • Lowers your risk of pneumonia and respiratory failure (when your lungs cannot work properly).

If you use tobacco or have recently quit, ask your BC Cancer health care team for more information. You can also go to our Smoking Cessation Program page.

Depending on the area of your body being treated, alcohol may worsen your side effects. Small amounts of alcohol may be fine for some people. Please check with your BC Cancer health care team.

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