Melatonin Cream May Reduce Risk of Radiation Therapy Skin Side Effects

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Many women who receive radiation therapy to treat breast cancer have a skin reaction in the area targeted by the radiation. The reaction is much like sunburn, with mild to moderate pink color or redness, itching, burning, soreness, and possible peeling.

A small, early (phase II) study found that a topical melatonin cream (also called an emulsion) applied to the skin before radiation therapy reduced the risk of skin side effects. These results were presented at the 2010 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Breast Cancer Symposium.

Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle. Some people use melatonin supplements to ease sleep problems or jet lag. Melatonin also may help treat depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

Other lab studies suggested that melatonin may be able to protect skin cells from the radiation damage. So researchers decided to see if a melatonin cream applied to the skin before radiation therapy might reduce any skin irritation caused by the radiation.

In this study, 47 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer had lumpectomy and were scheduled to get radiation therapy after surgery. During the course of radiation therapy, half the women applied a melatonin cream to the skin area affected by radiation twice a day. The other woman applied a cream that looked exactly the same, but didn't contain melatonin.

Two weeks after the radiation therapy was finished, the researchers assessed the skin exposed to radiation. Skin changes were rated grade 0, 1, or 2. A grade 0 rating meant that little or no skin change could be seen. A grade 2 rating meant that severe skin changes could be seen.

Women who used the melatonin skin cream were 50% less likely to have skin changes rated 1 or 2 after radiation therapy compared to women who used the cream without melatonin:

  • 41% of the women who used the melatonin cream had grade 0 skin changes and 59% had grade 1 or 2 skin changes
  • 11% of the women who used the cream without melatonin had grade 0 skin changes and 89% had grade 1 or 2 skin changes

The benefits of the melatonin cream were greater in women who were older than 50 and women who smoked.

Both groups of women had the same skin sensations after radiation therapy, which included stinging, burning, tingling, roughness, dryness, and pain. So the melatonin cream didn't seem to ease any of those sensations.

This research suggests that melatonin applied topically may be able to ease some radiation skin side effects. So the researchers are planning a larger study (phase III) to further evaluate the melatonin cream.

In the Breastcancer.org Radiation Therapy section, you can learn more about how radiation therapy works, how it's given, possible side effects, and how to ease them.

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