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Five Tips to Help Maintain Your Skin Through Radiation

Erin Hazelton is a freelance writer and women’s health advocate. Formerly a fashion and beauty writer, Erin’s career changed paths after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. Since then, her main objective has been educating women about the nuances of breast cancer and encouraging resilience in the face of adversity. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from New York University. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Farmington, Connecticut.

So, you made it through chemo and/or surgery. All you have to do now is lie under radioactive rays every day for six straight weeks (maybe less, but six weeks seems to be the average) and you are done with the hardcore part of your treatment. 

For some, radiation can be the most frightening part of treatment: Will my skin ever be the same? Will my arm on that side lose full range of motion? Is it painful? You’ll find horror stories if you look for them. 

For me, radiation was the least scary part. I knew once I pushed through that final stretch I’d be done with living half my life at the hospital. But I was still scared. I’m pale. I burn on a cloudy day. If you look at me the wrong way, my skin fires up in a rash. How was my skin going to survive six weeks of atomic bombardment? Well, according to my radiation oncologist, it turns out the pale skin often does just fine, perhaps even slightly better, during radiation… that we’d just have to see. 

With that vote of confidence, I decided to do some research on how to best protect my sensitive skin. Below is what I learned during that time and what worked well for me… but everyone is different, so do your own research, talk with your doctor, take a deep breath, and prepare yourself as best you can for the last leg of this marathon.

  1. Moisturize. I don’t care how you do it, but do it. Start today. I made myself a cream of shea butter, aloe vera, and calendula oil. It stained a lot of shirts, but my skin looks exactly the same today as it did before I started radiation… even though I ended up burned and blistered like nothing I’d ever before experienced about a week after I finished — yes, finished — treatment. It could have very well just been luck that my skin bounced back as well as it did, but I like to attribute its resilience at least in part to my religious moisturizing protocol: twice daily, unless my radiation appointment was super earlier in the day. DO NOT MOISTURIZE for several hours BEFORE TREATMENT. Your doctor will obviously tell you all this before you start radiation, but your skin needs to be dry when you receive radiation. My skin help up for a long while, but eventually it broke down into an oozy, angry mess. The good news: like the rest of our body, it will heal. 
  2. Take it easy on the soap. Okay, this is a personal one. I went rogue and barely washed my radiated area while my skin held up. I didn’t want soap to further dry out my skin and I figured it was best not to wash away whatever oils I had left in order to keep that area as moisturized as possible. When I showered, I kept my radiated quadrant out of the hot water as much as possible, and gently splashed it a few times with lukewarm water. Your doctor wants you to wash with soap to stave off infection, which makes sense. If you use soap, try to find a gentle, fragrance-free option, preferably one with a low pH, and, ideally, sulfate-free. 
  3. When my skin finally did break down, I made sure I kept the area clean, and slathered it with an antibacterial ointment that was prescribed by my radiation oncologist. I then covered the area with large gauze pads that were covered in a very thin, perforated plastic coating that were given to me by my hospital. The coating prevents the gauze from sticking to the wound, while still protecting it from your clothing, keeping the ointment in place.
  4. Once you are all healed, go back to your moisturizer of choice and keep that area covered… more or less forever. Radiated skin will burn more easily in the sun. It can also darken more than the rest of your skin and take longer to “un-tan.” High-necked swimwear and mineral sunscreens (also known as “physical blockers”) containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (or both) are your best bet. They act as a physical barrier between your skin and harmful UV rays. These sunscreens can often leave a white tinge behind, which isn’t ideal. Here are a few of our favorite sunscreens: Supergoop Zincscreen 100% Mineral Lotion SPF 40 and Mineral Sheerscreen SPF 30
  5. Stretch! How is this skincare? Guess what: Radiation tightens your skin. It also shrinks the muscles beneath your skin, which is why so many people find it hard to reach a full-range of motion after they’ve undergone radiation. One way you can prevent post-radiation stiffness and help maintain your skin’s elasticity is stretching. 

Here are the two stretches I found most effective: 

  • Stand in a doorway, make a 90-degree angle with your arm and press your forearm into the frame of the door. Lean your chest and body forward until you feel a nice pull. Hold for 30 seconds to two minutes. Repeat often, or at a minimum twice a day.
  • Grab onto the the edge of a desk, countertop, bathroom vanity, or any table and back up while still holding on. Bend your hips 90 degrees or until your back is flat — your should look like an extension of the table/counter top. Hold this pose for a couple of minutes. Set reminder in your calendar and try to do as often as you can, again with a minimum of twice a day. 

For more tips on how to care for your skin during radiation, please visit The American Academy of Dermatology Association. 

“One way you can prevent post-radiation stiffness and help maintain your skin’s elasticity is stretching.”

- Erin Hazelton

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