Staying Safe in the Sun After Cancer Treatment

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There are health benefits to sun exposure -- improved mood and vitamin D, as well as warmth. But many people don’t realize that radiation therapy, as well as chemotherapy, can cause sensitivity to the sun. Your skin may burn more easily after you have had treatment for leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. There are a few things you should know about staying safe in the sun after cancer treatment.

Certain chemotherapies are known to increase the damage the sun’s rays can do to your skin.

During chemotherapy, it is best to avoid direct exposure to the sun as much as you can to avoid burning of the skin. That doesn't mean you have to stay in the house or avoid the outdoors, but a sunscreen with a SPF of 30 or higher, a floppy hat in the summer, or skin-covering, protective clothing when walking on the beach, for instance.

Also, note that the effects of chemotherapy drugs can last for 1 to 2 months after the chemotherapy has been completed. The same precautions apply for areas of the skin that receive radiation therapy. The affected skin can burn more easily and should be protected.

Run the Sunscreen Checklist

  • Use a sunscreen product with at least SPF 30.
  • Check the expiration date on the lotion.
  • Reapply often at least every 2 hours, or more often if you are swimming or sweaty.
  • Use about an ounce, or a full palm full, of sunscreen to cover the exposed parts of an adult.
  • Apply sunscreen before makeup or bug repellent.
  • Don’t forget your ears, face, feet, hands, and the back of your neck when applying.
  • Apply a lip balm with SPF.

Enjoy the Golden Hours

In photography and in Hollywood, the golden hour -- sometimes known as the magic hour -- is a period shortly after sunrise or before sunset during which daylight is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky.

You have no doubt enjoyed these times -- in your life before cancer. Grass shines a deeper, richer yellow-green, faces glow and even dark hair shimmers gold. Here is your license to savor every minute of the golden hours as a cancer survivor.

The corollary is, if possible, to try to avoid the sun at times of the day when the rays are strongest, usually between 11 am and 4 pm. If you must go out during these times, make sure you dress for the occasion, or park your lawn chair in a nice shady area.

Just a reminder -- sunburn during the winter and especially on cloudy days is a possibility for everybody, not just those with extra-sensitive skin. Wearing sunscreen on exposed skin is a good idea year-round.

What to Wear

  • Loose-fitting clothing with breathable fabric. If you can see light through the fabric, the rays of the sun can penetrate it.
  • Long pants, skirts, and sleeves if you are out when the sun is at it’s brightest
  • Hats with a wide brim (2-3 inches) or a sport hat with fabric that covers the back of the neck are good choices.
  • Sunglasses with UV protection.
  • Clothing with SPF fabric.

Sprays versus Rays

If you are missing your summer glow, don’t be tempted by indoor tanning beds. Sunlamps can cause the same damage to your tender skin that the sun can, so this won’t be a good option. However, spray tans and sunless tanning technology has come a long way in the past few years. There are some great products out there that won’t leave you looking and feeling like a slimy orange peel.

Dusting your skin with a light bronzing powder and wearing bright colors can give women and men a pick-up. Ladies may also choose a colored lipstick or gloss with sunscreen to brighten things up.

Sun Summary

While nobody can deny that a beautiful day in the sun can feel great, the negative consequences to your health can outweigh the benefits. Skin sensitivity to the sun is a common side effect, and is usually temporary following chemotherapy, but may be permanent after radiotherapy.

While it is best to avoid the sun when it is at it’s hottest, using a high SPF sunscreen and appropriate clothing can help reduce the risk of dangerous exposure.


Iwamoto, R. “Radiation Therapy” in Varricchio, C. ed(1997) A Cancer Source Book for Nurses, 7th ed American Cancer Society Sudbury, MA (pp. 91- 103)

Maher, K. “Radiation Therapy: Toxicities and Management” in Yarbro, C., Frogge, M., Goodman, M., Groenwald, S. eds. (2000) Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice 5th ed Jones and Bartlett. Sudbury, MA (pp.323-352)

Skin Cancer Prevention. American Cancer Society. Accessed April 2016.

Sunscreens. American Academy of Dermatology. Accessed April, 2016.

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