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Treatments for breast cancer also can affect your skin at times, leaving it dry or flaky and more sensitive to exposure to sun, wind, and other elements.

Chemotherapy and skin care

Chemotherapy can affect your skin's natural moisture because it reduces the amount of oil your glands secrete. You can help your skin by using moisturizer more frequently, or using a heavier weight moisturizer than you did before treatment. During the day, use a product that protects your skin from the sun, blocking UVA and UVB rays. Be sure to use a gentle, moisturizing soap or cleansing cream, and avoid soaps with heavy deodorants or scents. Soaps for babies may be a good choice because they're usually mild and perfume-free.

Radiation and skin care

Radiation to the breast causes skin changes:

  • In all races, the skin color will change — lighter skin will turn red; dark skin will get darker or become ashen. Usually the affected areas are limited to small patches. There can be some itching, burning, and tenderness of the skin. You may have some dry peeling, like an old sunburn, as the skin rubs off.
  • If you are big-breasted, or if your doctor is treating the area after a mastectomy, there is a greater chance for “wet” peeling, like a blister. This is usually limited to specific spots.
  • The skin generally heals quickly and completely. The red reaction goes away the fastest. The change-over to tan shading, if you have light skin, can take a few weeks to go away. In women of color, the darkening of the skin can be more significant and may also take longer to disappear.
  • Ordinary freckles and moles can become much darker within the treatment field. These spots are almost always benign, but they will darken because of the treatment. After you finish radiation, they usually return to their normal color, and some eventually disappear.

Many products can help ease your way through treatment. These include aloe and aquaphor, which can be found in some drugstores and large convenience stores.

In addition, at some point you may need to use some type of steroid cream, such as a 1% hydrocortisone cream. Some women also benefit from a prescription-strength steroid cream. Ask your physician if you need a referral to a dermatologist.

Radiation and sun

Skin that receives radiation treatment has an increased risk of developing skin cancer in the future. This is why it is so important to take extra precautions to protect the skin within the radiation treatment field from the sun.

The part of your breast near your cleavage will probably be in the treatment field, and that's also the area exposed to the sun when you wear a bathing suit or tank top. So make sure you use a moisturizer or body lotion with sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

If you're receiving fluorouracil (5-FU) chemotherapy, you may notice you tan more easily. Make sure you take extra steps to protect yourself from the sun.

Skin and sun precautions

Excessive exposure to the sun is responsible for much of the skin damage associated with aging. It's also the leading cause of skin cancer — by far the most common form of cancer diagnosed today. Almost half of all Americans who reach age 65 will develop at least one skin cancer in their lifetime.

It takes as little as 15 minutes for the sun's ultraviolet rays to harm your skin, even though it may take up to 12 hours for your skin to show a sunburn.

Serious sunburns, especially during childhood and adolescence, can increase the chances of developing the more serious form of skin cancer — malignant melanoma — later in life. However, breast cancer does not make you more prone to developing skin cancer.

You need to protect your skin every time you go outside, even when it's cloudy. Use products that have the proper SPF, or sun protection factor. An SPF factor tells you how long you can stay in the sun without getting a sunburn. For example: If you usually start to burn after about 20 minutes, proper use of products with an SPF factor of 2 will protect you for about 40 minutes, and proper use of products with an SPF factor of 15 will protect you for about five hours (15 times 20 = 300 minutes).

Studies show that products with a SPF of 30 provide great protection from harmful ultraviolet rays. Higher SPFs are no better.

Sunscreen users often apply only half of the recommended amount, so they receive only half of the SPF protection the product offers. In other words, if you apply half as much SPF 30 sunscreen as you should, you'll only get the protection of a SPF 15.

Don't forget to treat your lips. They contain few oil and sweat glands and no melanin (a protective chemical in the rest of your skin). So they are not protected from moisture-robbing ultraviolet rays. Instead of using lip balms that contain camphor, menthol, or phenol, use products with moisture-sealing ingredients and SPF protection.

Tips for healthy-looking skin

  • Learn to sleep on your back, preferably with your head elevated. This reduces the puffiness most of us see in the mirror each morning. You might want to invest in a buckwheat or form-fitting pillow that will help keep your head upright.
  • Don't smoke. The heat and smoke of the cigarette itself will constrict your blood vessels and cause wrinkles. And overuse of the muscles used to draw in the smoke can cause just as many wrinkles. And smoking, as you surely know, is a risk factor for lung cancer.
  • Don't use alcohol-containing products on your face. They're too drying, even for oily skin.
  • Don't wash your face more than twice a day, unless you exercise. In that case, be sure to wash away any sweat that could be drying to your face as it evaporates. You might also consider a non-soap skin cleanser.

Skin care tip

Remember the four essential steps to healthy skin care:

  • cleansing
  • exfoliation
  • moisturizing
  • protection (against sun and elements)

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