Skin problems from cancer treatment

Published: 01 Apr 2020

Many people suffer from skin problems as a side effect of cancer drugs.  It’s one of the most discussed subjects in our Chemotherapy Support Group on Facebook, so we thought we’d look into a few of the most common issues.

Your skin is the largest organ of the body, with a total area of about 20 square feet. Even when you’re not on strong cancer medication, your skin can be sensitive and react to things such as changes in diet, temperature, and allergens. 

When you’re on a cancer regime, that sensitivity may be amplified. Many people will experience a range of problems from a mild itch to the appearance of sores and lesions.  Most of the time skin problems are irritating and uncomfortable rather than serious, and taking simple measures, such as moisturizing, can help. However, some people may have more severe reactions that require medical intervention.  

Managing skin conditions

Most of the time catching a skin reaction early is the best way to manage the problem. Sometimes an itch, pain, or discomfort is the first sign that a skin condition is beginning. Talk to your healthcare team if you have any of these symptoms and they can advise.

Dry and itchy skin

Dry skin or itchy skin is a common side effect for people having chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy,  especially with cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. 

People with cancer are also more susceptible to Jaundice, which can also give you itchy skin. This is because bile salts are deposited in your skin. Having a shower may help as it can wash the bile salts off. Ask your doctor, they may prescribe medicines to help reduce the itching.

If you’re suffering from dry skin:


A rash can be a side effect of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy or radiation therapy. It can vary in appearance and severity and may look like slightly reddened skin, 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 may prescribe corticosteroids, given as a cream, and antibiotic creams or antibiotics in tablet form.

For a more severe rash: your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroid tablets, as well as the cream.

In extreme cases: your doctor may also stop your chemotherapy for a short time and restart at a lower dose

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. Consult your medical team – they will advise on the measures you need to take.

However, there are some general guidelines to follow: 

Radiation therapy-related skin problems

Radiation therapy used on cancer cells can also affect healthy skin cells. You may find the skin in the treatment area becomes red or darkens. It may also feel sore or itchy. Sometimes the skin gets very sore and it may blister, break or leak fluid.  Often referred to as ‘skin burn’, it usually appears after 1 to 2 weeks of treatment and generally gets better when treatment ends. 

However, if it does become a problem, your doctor may need to reduce your dose or reschedule when the condition improves.

During your treatment you are usually advised to:
wear loose-fitting clothes made from natural fibers, such as a cotton t-shirt
wash your skin gently with mild, unperfumed soap and water and gently pat it dry

Malignant wounds 

Many types of cancer can cause these wounds, but they are most common with skin cancer and breast cancer. Malignant wounds can easily become infected and be very painful or itchy. They may also leak fluid or blood and have a very strong odor. 

Pressure ulcers or bedsores

Pressure ulcers, or bedsores, are caused if someone is unable to get out of bed or move for a period of time. They often form on the heels of the feet, the coccyx area, and other parts of the body with a thin layer of fat. To prevent and treat bed sores:

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If you are experiencing skin-related symptoms, or have any advice to offer others based on your own experience, please join the Chemotherapy Support Group on Facebook.  The group has over 7000 members, all of whom are or have been affected by cancer.

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