Do you have a sight, or a smell, that instantly puts your mind back in an oncology waiting room, an infusion center, or a radiation oncology wing? For me, it’s the smell of the moisturizer that I was prescribed when I was going through radiation therapy for breast cancer. It’s a sickly sweet smell. And, while I don’t really like to remember it, I have to admit that moisturizer was a godsend during radiation.
As every cancer patient knows, taking care of your skin during radiation is challenging. You feel like your skin’s about to peel right off, but you still have to put on clothing. The shower feels uncomfortable, but you still have to bathe. You itch, but you’re not supposed to scratch.
You’ve probably heard some of the more common advice:
- Wear loose-fitting clothes.
- Keep your skin moisturized. But make sure you use the products your doctors recommend – not your favorite stuff from the beauty counter!
- Avoid bathing in water that’s too hot or too cold. Stick with lukewarm water.
- Protect your skin from the sun. Think how painful a sunburn might be on irradiated skin. Cover up. Wear a hat. Stay in the shade.
- Don’t scrub your skin. This is not the time for loofahs and exfoliants. And if you’re getting head radiation, I’d imagine the last thing you’d want is a facial.
- Don’t wear makeup, perfume, or deodorants on the areas being treated.
Most of these are common sense, of course. But here are some things that don’t always get across:
- If you don’t like the skin products that your doctor recommends, ask to try something different. Believe me, if I ever have to do radiation again, I’m not going to use that nightmarishly sweet moisturizer!
- Remember that it really makes a difference which part of your body is being treated. For instance, if your mouth and/or head is getting the beam, then you’re likely to experience dry mouth and sore throat. There are many treatments for this, the simplest being gargling with baking soda (that also works with chemo-induced mouth sores by the way). If your pelvis is involved, it’s better to wear cotton underwear. You can find a terrific guide, with body part-specific advice here.
- That advice about lukewarm baths? It also applies to heating pads and cold packs. Don’t use them on the affected area.
- And while lukewarm bathing is good, keep soap away from the affected area unless you want your skin to feel like sandpaper.
If your reaction to radiation is more serious, don’t hesitate to tell your doctor.