Caring for Your Skin During Radiation Treatment

External Beam Radiation Machine
External Beam Radiation Machine. Photo © National Cancer Institute


Many women have radiation as a part of their treatment for breast cancer. Lumpectomy, a breast conserving surgery, is followed by a several week schedule of Monday through Friday radiation treatments. Radiation is also used to shrink a tumor before surgery, and is sometimes given following a mastectomy.

Radiation is considered a localized treatment, which targets only the breast being treated for cancer.

 While fatigue is often a side-effect, usually beginning 2-3 weeks into treatment, skin changes and discomfort in the treated area are not uncommon.You can anticipate skin color changes 2-3 weeks into the treatments. The color may go from pink to red, or have a tanned appearance. Weeks into treatment, skin in the affected area may start to peel as if you had a sunburn.

Some women, in radiation therapy for breast cancer, get radiation dermatitis, which causes  substantial discomfort, and requires treatment with topical corticosteroid creams and antibiotics.

Before starting radiation treatment following my first breast cancer, the radiation oncology nurse met with me; she made me aware of the skin problems that might occur as a result of being in treatment.  She advised me that my skin, in the treated area, might be sensitive when touched. She assured me that skin problems would begin to fade after treatment ended.

The nurse also gave me material on how to care for my skin in the breast area.The material was then and continues to be in keeping with best practices as recommended by the National Cancer Institute, and the American Academy of Dermatology.

Skin Care Plan During Treatment:

  • When you wash the treated area, use lukewarm water and a mild soap that is perfume-free. Avoid rubbing or scrubbing the treated area. Use a soft towel to gently pat the area dry.
  • Make sure to take short showers or baths using lukewarm water. Apply moisturizing cream the radiation oncology nurse recommends when you finish drying after a shower. Do this while your skin is still slightly damp.
  • Avoid using deodorant on the side being treated.
  • Wear cotton clothing that is loose-fitting, which will be more comfortable on the affected area.
  • Avoid perfumes, deodorants, body oils, bubble bath, scented lotions, cosmetics or products containing alcohol. Check with your nurse if you want to find safe substitutes for any of these products.
  • Before using any skin care product on your skin, speak with your nurse for recommendations on specific lotions and creams. Be sure to ask about how often you can use these products.  
  • Never use heating pads, or ice packs, or apply bandages to the area receiving radiation therapy.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet as well as keeping yourself hydrated will help to keep your skin healthy and comfortable.
  • Applying a cool washcloth or ice to the affected area may also help.
  • Your radiation oncologist will watch your skin for excessive drying and may prescribe medications or moisturizing, anti-itch or anti-inflammatory agents to ease your discomfort and help your skin to heal. If there is any sign of infection, you will be given antibiotics.
  • When you finish radiation, you may experience your skin condition continuing to deteriorate for a week or so. After that you will see improvement. However, your skin may continue to be more sensitive to the sun.
  • It is recommended that you use a  sunblock of at least SPF 30. You may find that your skin is more sensitive to radiation-induced changes, especially if you have fair skin and have a history of sunburning easily.  
  • Be sure to check your skin each day looking for changes that may lead to infection. Make your physician aware if your skin looks or feels different to you, or if you find cuts.

    It is very import to have any skin problems taken care of immediately; you don’t want to have treatment interrupted because of a worsening skin condition.

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