When you have radiation treatment for cancer, you may have some changes in your skin in the area being treated. Your skin may turn red, peel, or itch. You should treat your skin with care while receiving radiation therapy.
External radiation therapy uses high-powered x-rays or particles to kill cancer cells. The rays or particles are aimed directly at the tumor from outside of the body. Radiation therapy also damages or kills healthy cells. During treatment, skin cells do not have enough time to grow back between radiation sessions. This causes side effects.
Skin Side Effects
Side effects depend on the dose of radiation, how often you have the therapy, and the part of your body the radiation is focused on, such as:
Two weeks or so after radiation treatment starts, you may notice skin changes such as:
- Red or burned skin
- Darkened skin
- Hair loss in the area being treated
- Thinning or thickening of skin
- Soreness or swelling of the area
- Sensitivity or numbness
- Skin sores
Most of these symptoms will go away after your treatments have stopped. However, your skin may remain darker, drier, and more sensitive to the sun. When your hair grows back, it may be different than before.
When you have radiation treatment, a health care provider draws colored markings on your skin. DO NOT remove them. These show where to aim the radiation. If they come off, do not redraw them. Tell your provider instead. These must stay there until your treatments are done.
Take care of the treatment area.
- DO NOT wash the area unless your provider tells you to.
- If you get the OK from your provider, wash gently with lukewarm water only. DO NOT scrub. Pat your skin dry.
- DO NOT use soap on the area.
- DO NOT use lotions, ointments, makeup, or perfumed powders or products. They can irritate skin or interfere with treatment. Ask your doctor what products you can use and when.
- If you normally shave the treatment area, only use an electric razor. DO NOT use shaving products.
- DO NOT scratch or rub your skin.
- Wear loose-fitting, soft fabrics next to your skin, such as cotton. Avoid tight-fitting clothes and rough fabrics like wool.
- DO NOT use bandages or adhesive tape on the area.
- If you are being treated for breast cancer, do not wear a bra, or wear a loose-fitting bra with no underwire. Ask your provider about wearing your breast prosthesis, if you have one.
- DO NOT use heating pads or cold packs on the skin.
- DO NOT swim in pools, salt water, lakes, or ponds.
Keep the treatment area out of direct sunlight while undergoing treatment and for 1 year after treatment ends.
- Wear clothes that protects you from the sun, such as a hat with a broad brim, a shirt with long sleeves, and long pants.
- Use sunscreen.
The treated area will be more sensitive to the sun. You will also be more at risk for skin cancer in that area. Tell your provider if you have skin changes and any break or opening in your skin.
Doroshow JH. Approach to the patient with cancer. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 179.
National Cancer Institute. Radiation therapy and you: support for people with cancer. www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/radiationttherapy.pdf. Accessed June 14, 2016.
Zeman EM, Schreiber EC, Tepper JE. Basics of radiation therapy. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 27.
Review Date 5/20/2016
Updated by: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.