How cancer treatment can affect your skin

June is Cancer Survivor Awareness Month, an opportunity to celebrate the more than 18 million Americans who are now “living with and beyond cancer.” This is wonderful news, as not too long ago “cancer” was among the most dreaded words in the English language. This month we take time to acknowledge what all of these fellow Americans have gone through—and also to appreciate how far medical research has come in understanding and treating this disease! That so many people are living with and beyond their cancer diagnosis is excellent news!

Nevertheless, surviving cancer can take its own financial, emotional, and physical toll—including a toll on your skin. For starters, a cancer diagnosis and its treatment can be one of life’s major stressors. And, as faithful Modern Wellness Digest readers know, stress results in inflammation, which can damage cell membranes (essential for keeping cells hydrated) and can also damage the skin’s barrier function (essential for keeping skin hydrated). Both forms of damage can cause skin to dry out, become more sensitive to other triggers—such as sun exposure and skin allergies—and age more rapidly.

The National Cancer Institute reports that, while skin can be affected by all types of cancer treatment, skin problems caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy typically are mild, while those caused by stem cell transplants, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy may be more severe. Here are the common ways cancer treatments can affect skin:

Radiation therapy can cause the skin near the treatment site to become dry and itchy (pruritus) and darken or turn red. It may also result in sores that are wet, painful, and vulnerable to infection.

Chemotherapy, too, can cause your skin to become dry, itchy, red, form a rash, or peel. You may become photosensitive and sunburn more easily. You may also experience skin pigmentation changes. Your hair may fall out temporarily. Your nails may become dark and cracked, and your cuticles may hurt. Also, if you received radiation therapy previously, the area of skin where you received radiation may become red, blister, peel, or become sore. This is called radiation recall. You can also get an allergic response to chemotherapy, which may include a sudden or severe rash or hives, or a burning sensation.

Stem cell transplant therapy (procedures that restore blood-forming stem cells to replace those destroyed by high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy) may result in graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which can cause skin problems such as a rash, blisters, or thickening of the skin.

Immunotherapy can also cause a severe and sometimes extensive rash. Your skin may become dry or blister. Some types of immunotherapy can also trigger an auto-immune response, such as vitiligo in response to immunotherapy for melanoma.

Targeted therapy (also called molecularly targeted therapy) may also cause dry skin, a rash, and nail problems.

In all of these cases, it’s important to talk with your oncologist about your experience, particularly if the skin problems are severe or uncomfortable.

Here are some ways you can minimize the discomfort and keep from aggravating any of these skin conditions:

Use only recommended skin products. Your nurse will be able to recommend any specific skincare items. In general, however, reach for mild soaps that are gentle on your skin, and give exfoliation a break for now. I also recommend warm, rather than hot, showers and baths when cleaning the skin.

Protect your skin by staying out of the sun as much as possible. Apply sunscreen and sun-protective lip balm and wear loose-fitting clothing that covers your arms and legs, and a hat with a wide brim when heading outdoors. You can also eat your sunscreen, which protects your skin from sun damage from the inside.

Moisturize your skin to keep it from becoming dry and itchy. (I know you are doing this anyway!) It’s especially important during cancer treatment because irritated skin can become infected. Your doctor can recommend special creams or ointments, such as topical corticosteroids, for severely dry, itchy, or painful skin, or may even prescribe a corticosteroid to be taken orally. A cool washcloth can also be applied to soothe dry, itchy skin. And don’t forget internal moisturizer: eat your water!

Prevent or treat dry, itchy skin by avoiding skincare products that include alcohol or fragrance, as they can dry or irritate your skin. Adding colloidal oatmeal to your bath can also soothe skin that feels overheated (I also recommend it for sunburns) and will also reduce itching. If you are receiving radiation therapy, don’t use heating pads, ice packs, or bandages on the treatment area. You may want to shave less often or stop shaving if your skin is tender and sore.

Prevent infection. Radiation therapy can cause skin in the treatment area to peel, become painful, and develop wet sores. This usually occurs in areas where the skin folds, such as around your ears, breast, or bottom. Prevention involves keeping the area clean and dry so it does not become infected. Corn starch or talcum powder can help. Discuss this with your physician or nurse. They may also recommend special dressings that you can apply to the area and/or antibiotics to stop any infection before it starts.

Prevent or treat minor nail problems by keeping your nails clean and cut short (to avoid accidental tears) and by wearing gloves when washing the dishes, gardening, or using chemicals around the house. You may need to avoid getting manicures and pedicures for the time being. As always, discuss any concerns you may have with your healthcare team.

For more, read my post on Fighting Cancer: Minimize your risk with the Four Pillars of Modern Wellness – Dr. Howard Murad ( While it’s wonderful news that we now have so many millions of cancer survivors, an even better accomplishment would be preventing cancer in the first place!

That’s Modern Wellness!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider, who should also be consulted with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.


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