Cancer drugs can cause your skin to react in many different ways. It may simply be that the skin becomes very dry, but also watch out for reactions to the drugs themselves. Here are just some of the things you may experience:
- discolored and possibly darker skin – maybe in patches
- sensitivity to sunlight
- redness and sore hands and feet
- red and itchy all over your body
- sore, red, hot, dry and itchy in areas previously treated with radiotherapy
Everyone is different, how one person reacts will be completely different to another. If you have any changes to your skin condition, be it one of the symptoms above or something completely different, always tell your medical team. They may be able to suggest ways to reduce the reaction, prescribe a medication, or if necessary adjust your treatment.
Dry and itchy skin
Dry, itchy skin is one of the more common side effects for people with cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. It’s also very common for patients undergoing chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow transplants.
To treat dry skin:
- use a moisturizing cream at least twice a day and within 15 minutes of showering
- avoid products that irritate the skin such as some soaps, detergents and fragranced creams. Only usese products designed to be gentle on your skin
- avoid products that scratch or scrub your skin, such as sponges, bath scrubs, or loofahs
- shower and bathe with warm water. Hot water can dry the skin even more
- when skin is very dry and cracked, use moisturizers containing salicylic acid, urea, ammonium, or lactic acid. These will soften the skin and allow for water to be retained
- recommendations from members of the Chemotherapy Support Group include:
- “Bag Balm works great at night on hands & feet, wear socks & mittens after applying”
- “I couldn't take highly perfumed ones and my sense of smell became highly sensitive, also skin chemistry changes so it pays to patch test”
- “The Honest Company no scent baby oil works well”
- “Dermeze thick cream brought my skin back from an awful rash that made my skin peel from dryness”
To treat itchy skin:
- avoid fragranced skin products
- use creams with menthol, camphor, or pramoxine, which are available over the counter. You can also use topical steroids prescribed by your doctor.
- try wearing loose more natural and soft fabrics against skin
- try using antihistamines
- above all, talk with your health care team about the itching before taking any medication
- members of the Chemotherapy Facebook Group have recommended calamine, chamomile and aloe vera – but always patch test first.
Some chemotherapy and biological therapy drugs can affect the skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. This is called hand-foot syndrome or palmar plantar syndrome. The skin can become sore, red and may peel. You might also have tingling, numbness, pain and dryness. Tell your doctor if this happens but medical experts suggest the following:
- take medicines prescribed by your doctor
- keep your skin well moisturized with creams from your doctor or nurse
- keep your hands and feet cool
- avoid hot water
- avoid tight fitting gloves or socks
- try wearing more natural and soft fabrics against skin
Chemotherapy extravasation or leaks
Although rare, if your drip leaks while you are having chemotherapy, depending on the drugs it may cause pain or burning, soreness, swelling of the skin around the drip site and even sores (ulcers), which can take a long time to heal.
If left untreated, an open wound may develop, so if you have pain or burning when you are receiving chemotherapy, tell your health care team right away. They will likely stop the chemotherapy and treat the area around the infusion with topical or injected medications. You will then receive chemo through another vein or by another method.
Sensitivity to light
Some types of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplants may make the skin more sensitive to light. This is called photosensitivity. To protect sensitive skin from sunburns when outside:
- cover up with clothing or a hat when outside
- use a sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 and blocks UVA and UVB rays. Make sure to apply enough to cover your entire body (1 ounce or 35 mL). Reapply every 2 hours or every hour if you are swimming or sweating – but always patch test first
- for more information read our blog ‘Are you making these common sunscreen mistakes?’
Rashes can be a side effect of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, or bone marrow transplants. People may experience a rash that looks like acne or measles. There are several ways to manage a rash depending on how severe it is:
- for a mild or a moderate rash, your doctor can prescribe drugs called corticosteroids given as a cream. Your doctor may also suggest antibiotic creams or oral antibiotics
- for a more severe rash, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids as well as the cream form. Your doctor may also decide to stop your chemotherapy for a short time and restart at a lower dose
- you may be referred to a dermatologist for other treatments
- there may also be other more natural remedies you may want to try - speak with medical team who will be able to advise
Other radiation therapy-related skin problems
When radiation therapy is used on cancer cells, it also affects healthy skin cells. This can cause the skin to peel, itch, or hurt. Skin damage from radiation therapy often starts after 1 or 2 weeks of treatment. In most cases it gets better a few weeks after treatment ends, but if it becomes a problem, your doctor may change your radiation therapy dose or schedule until the condition improves.
Corticosteroid skin creams may help prevent skin changes from radiation therapy. But make sure you do not apply these creams within 4 hours of radiation therapy. Tell your health care team if you see any open sores or areas where your skin is moist. This may be a sign of an infection that needs treatment with oral antibiotics.
The most important thing is if you are experiencing any skin problems, tell your medical team. And if you plan to use any creams or treatments suggested by others, check with your specialist team first and patch test. Depending on your personal treatment program, not everything will be right for you.
And please share your experiences with the friendly members of the Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group. If you have any concerns, worries or simply want support from people going through the same as you, it’s a great place to go.