8 Sun care tips for people diagnosed with breast cancer
With summertime here, you’ll likely spend more time outside. Whether it’s the beach or a pool, a hike or a stroll, a trip or a picnic, it’s the season for getting outdoors. Everyone, regardless of skin color or skin tone, needs to take precautions against sunburn and sun damage, which could lead to skin cancer. But, people being treated with chemotherapy or radiation for breast cancer – or who have recently had a mastectomy – need to be especially protective when venturing out into the sun, particularly during spring and summer when the sun’s rays are most intense.
Not everyone will experience the same side effects of cancer treatment. However, there are some side effects that are more common than others, including skin sensitivity and skin changes such as rash, dryness, and itchiness. Radiation therapy can cause changes in skin color at the site of the radiation; it is best to avoid too much sun exposure during and after treatment. Chemotherapy and other treatments can also cause photosensitivity (sensitivity to light), increasing a person’s chances of getting sunburned.
If you have recently had surgery or treatment for breast cancer, or you are currently undergoing cancer treatment, there are several things you can do to guard your skin from sunburn and sun damage, such as:
- Talk to your health care team. Ask your doctor or nurse if and when it is safe for you to spend time in the sun. They may suggest certain products, brands, or ingredients to look for when nurturing your skin.
- Cover up. Seek shade when possible. Wear lightweight cotton clothing to help protect your skin. Some companies even offer clothing that has sun-protecting properties. Bright- or dark-colored clothing provides the best protection.
- Avoid midday sun exposure. It’s important to stay out of the sun when its rays are strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- If you have had a lumpectomy, mastectomy, or other surgery, take extra care of scars. Exposure to sunlight may slow healing and may change the appearance of the scar, making it more noticeable. Cover your scar with clothing or sunscreen.
- Always wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days, because the sun’s rays pass through clouds. Here are some additional tips about choosing and applying sunscreen:
- The American Cancer Society suggests everyone wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects your skin from two kinds of the sun’s rays, UVA and UVB.
- Avoid using sunscreen that has expired.
- Use about an ounce (2 tablespoons) for your entire body, and reapply every two hours, especially if you’re swimming or sweating.
- Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before heading out into the sun to allow the sunscreen to be absorbed into your skin.
- Everyone needs sun protection. “There’s a misconception that perhaps women [of color] don’t need to wear skin protectant and sunscreen, [but] you absolutely do,” says Monique Gary, DO, MSc, FACS, a breast surgical oncologist at Grand View Health/Penn Cancer Network. Learn more about Skin care and scarring after breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy in an interview with Living Beyond Breast Cancer CEO Jean A. Sachs, MSS, MLSP, and Dr. Gary.
- Protect your whole body. If you have lost your hair due to chemotherapy, make sure you wear a hat to protect your scalp. A hat is a good idea even if you haven’t lost your hair; a wide brim will cover your ears, neck, and face. Don’t forget to pay special attention to eyelids, lips, and the top of your feet, which often go overlooked. Use a lip balm with SPF and wear sunglasses.
- Take extra care in the mountains or at the beach. If you will be outdoors at high altitudes or near a pool, lake, or ocean, the sun’s rays can have more damaging effects on your skin.