A Journey with Breast Cancer, Part 3: Skin is In

By Jeanne Romano

As you probably know both chemo and radiation treatments are very effective parts of your cancer treatment. However, in targeting cancer cells they can also damage healthy cells – anything that grows quickly, like your skin. So it’s no surprise you’ll probably encounter (if you haven’t already) itching, rashes, sensitivity to the sun and even an allergic reaction or two. Nice, huh?

MY OWN EXPERIENCE REVEALED TWO THINGS YOU SHOULD AVOID. THEY’RE EASY TO OVERLOOK AND MIGHT WORSEN YOUR DISCOMFORT: 

If at all possible, only wear cotton clothing next to your skin –something made of natural fibers. Maybe wear an all-cotton camisole or T-shirt under other materials to prevent dry skin reactions.

TIP: Try washing your clothes in a mild, organic, scent-free or all-natural  laundry detergent. No bleach or fabric softeners.

You may want to avoid all scented soaps, bubble bath, etc… depending on the brand they may contain drying and irritating agents that could trigger or worsen dry skin.

If at all possible, avoid direct exposure to the sun. That lovely warming orb might trigger photo-toxic reactions in your skin which may cause some unpleasant swelling, redness, blisters, and peeling. “Gosh, when you put it that way…” If you plan to be outdoors, try using an organic sunscreen or moisturizer. SPF15 (or greater) is the usual recommendation.

It may help to wear special protective clothing that shields your skin from the sun. This type of clothing has special built-in SPF protection. You might also want to buy a product that adds sunscreen in the wash. The reason I mention it is because of those sneaky overcast days.

Try not to indulge in long, hot baths. Even though a hot soak sounds so relaxing (even therapeutic) than let’s say a lukewarm shower, hot water has a tendency to dry out sensitive skin.

OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE TONS OF PRODUCTS OUT THERE TO HELP YOU THROUGH THIS. HERE’S WHAT WORKED FOR ME:  

HYDRATE. I can’t say recommend this enough. Try drinking at least two to three quarts of water or non-caffeinated, alcohol-free beverages every day. I know what you’re thinking. You’ll probably spend half your day in the bathroom. Annoying yes, worth it? Absolutely.

Hydration also means your skin. Organic moisturizers such Aloe Vera are the way to go. They’re formulated to promote moisture in skin cells and create a barrier on the outermost layer of your skin. This layer is designed to protect your sensitive skin. The old standby baby oil might be just the ticket for slavering on after taking shower. Baby oil is made to penetrate baby skin and create a protective seal, locking in much needed moisture. If it works for baby, it just might work for you.

It’s a good idea to wear rubber gloves when washing dishes or handling cleaning products. During chemo and radiation your hands might be sensitive and showing signs of irritation. For an additional barrier, try thin cotton gloves beneath the rubber or vinyl gloves to further protect your skin.

TIP: Inflammation often responds well to the application of a cool, wet (cotton) cloth.

I sprinkled simple cornstarch on my skin to relieve itching. You may prefer cornstarch to talcum powder, which may cause some irritation.

Don’t forget to chat with your doctor and/or medical team about your skin. If you experience some tenderness it might be possible to reduce your dosage of chemotherapy or radiation – remember your medical team is there to help you – and you are the most important part of the “team.” Don’t be silent about your discomfort; there are alternative drugs. Be sure to let someone know if you feel burning in your skin during the administration of chemotherapy. Burning may be an allergic reaction to the intravenous tubing.

Take extra care to protect your skin if you receive radiation before chemo. Your skin might develop something called radiation recall –which might cause (more good news) painful blistering or peeling.

When therapy is over your skin should rebound, although not immediately. It might take a while so be prepared for the possibility of some lingering irritation and/or soreness. There might also be some scarring. The best product I found (and still use) for reducing the look of scars and rejuvenating skin is Strivectin-SD.

According to the American Cancer Society, it usually takes six to 12 months for the skin to return to normal. Just so you know, my skin was back in less than that. Yes, there are still some dry patches but for the most part, because I asked questions and did some additional research, I took extra care. Some patches are still a bit rough however in general my skin is in fine condition. And soon, yours will be too.

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