Bloomington / Normal, IL

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Cancer Treatment and the Effects on Skin


Submitted by Doug Leone, MD, and Adrienne Schupbach, MD, Dermatology and Mohs Surgery Institute

The effects that cancer treatment can have on a person’s skin can be overlooked, however, there is a growing trend in treating cancer that focuses on curing both the disease and helping patients maintain their self-esteem and quality of life. By combining oncology and dermatology, both the disease and the negative consequences that rashes, burns, peeling, blistering, blemishes, and painful lesions can produce can be addressed.

For obvious reasons, the skin, hair, and nails have not been the topmost concerns in oncology — the most important goal is to treat and cure the cancer. But, a large percentage of cancer patients will experience side effects to their skin. Sometimes, these side effects are worse than the treatment for the disease, affecting a patient’s sense of self and their interactions with others. Perhaps most significantly, severe side effects to the skin may require that treatments be reduced or stopped altogether.

Upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, patients must make a host of lifestyle adjustments to many things, including to their skin care routines. Intense skin rashes and burns may be a side effect of chemotherapy and radiation, and certain side effects are actually an indicator that the treatment is working. Mild rashes, itchiness, and dryness are quite common side effects and can be painful as well as affect one’s appearance. The following are some tips for managing the skin discomfort that may be caused by cancer treatment*:

  • Be very gentle to your skin. Do not rub or scrub and use mild soap, cleaning products, and laundry detergents that are free of dyes, fragrances, and other irritants. Wear clothes that are loose and made from soft, natural fabrics.
  • Use warm — not hot — water, and take short baths or showers no more than once a day.
  • Moisturize twice a day using a product that is alcohol and fragrance-free. Creams and ointments are usually more effective than lotion. Your dermatologist may recommend a prescription-strength cream or lotion to help with dryness and itchiness.
  • Drink plenty of water. This helps keep skin hydrated.
  • If you experience a rash on your face, be careful with the products you use to try to cover it up as some products may cause irritation. If the rash looks like acne, do not use acne products.
  • Protect your skin from the sun! Many cancer treatments will cause your skin to be extra sensitive to sunlight. You may want to use a mineral-based sunscreen that does not contain chemical ingredients but works by using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Alternatively, cover up your skin when going outside by wearing a hat and long-sleeve shirt.
  • Remember to protect your nails by moisturizing the nail directly and wearing rubber gloves to wash dishes, clean, or do yard work. It may be a good idea to avoid manicures and pedicures during treatment. Polish and polish remover usually contain chemicals that can dry out nails.

It is critical to try to eliminate any added pain or discomfort a cancer patient may have due to a noticeable side effect from their treatment. A dermatologist can improve a patient’s life by properly diagnosing and treating skin conditions. The collaboration between your oncologist and a dermatologist can improve the skin and quality of life.

*Always follow your oncologist’s treatment plan and discuss any new skin regimen with them prior to trying any of these tips.

For more information, you may contact the Dermatology and Mohs Surgery Institute at 309-451-DERM (3376), Dr. Leone and Dr. Schupbach, both residents of Bloomington, are board-certified dermatologists, specializing in medical and cosmetic dermatology, including the treatment of skin cancer, moles, acne, rashes, warts, and all skin disorders. Dr. Leone is one of the few Mohs-trained surgeons in the area. Their practice is located at 3024 E. Empire St. 2nd floor, in the Advocate BroMenn outpatient center.