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Skin reactions occur because external beam radiation travels through the skin to reach the area being targeted for treatment. Radiation to any area of the body can cause skin reactions. The equipment used to deliver radiation therapy does not usually cause major damage to the skin. Some people do not experience any skin reactions with radiation therapy.
Radiation treatment may cause some general skin reactions, including:
Most skin reactions occur within the first 2 weeks of receiving external beam radiation therapy. They usually go away 2–4 weeks after treatment is finished.
Sometimes skin changes occur after radiation is finished and become long-term (chronic) problems. The skin over the treated area can become thinner. It may also appear:
Radiation recall is a skin reaction that can occur when certain chemotherapy drugs, such as doxorubicin (Adriamycin), are given after radiation therapy treatment. It usually appears in the area of skin where the radiation was given. The skin becomes red and tender, and it may peel or blister like a sunburn. Radiation recall can happen shortly after, a few months after or a year or more after radiation treatments. Radiation recall is treated like other skin reactions.
Keeping skin clean, dry and moisturized during treatment can help reduce potential problems. Some areas of the body are more sensitive to the effects of radiation. For example, skin folds may be more sensitive because of increased warmth and moisture where skin surfaces rub together.
It is important to follow skin care instructions that the radiation oncologist or radiation therapy team give you. The following are general guidelines about skin care:
It is important to report skin reactions to the healthcare team. Mild skin reactions do not usually need treatment. Severe reactions may require medical treatment or radiation therapy may be delayed to help the skin recover.
Skin irritation can continue for several weeks after treatment ends, so special care may be needed for a short time after radiation therapy.
Some people choose to use makeup or cosmetics to help hide or camouflage discoloured skin after completing radiation therapy. Check with the radiation therapy team about when it is okay to try this and what products you can use.
The Canadian Cancer Society provides helpful information about government income programs, financial resources and other resources available to families struggling to make sense of the personal financial burden they face.