Skin Care After Cancer Therapy for Childhood Cancer

Dava Szalda, MD MSHP
Last Modified: June 5, 2016

What’s the risk?

Radiation makes the skin more sensitive and increases the risk of developing skin cancers. Skin cancers include basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma skin cancers. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is actually one of the more common cancers in young adults (regardless of prior cancer history), so skin care and protection should be considered important in all childhood cancer patients and survivors. It is important to remember that those with darker skin pigment are also at risk of getting skin cancer and need to protect their skin as well.

Symptoms/When to Call

Any new or changing skin lesions or moles should be reported to your healthcare team. In existing skin lesions, look for any change in symmetry, size, or color of the lesion or abnormally shaped borders.

Prevention and Treatment

  • Yearly skin exams should be performed by a general physician or dermatologist, with particular attention to areas of radiation exposure.
  • Sunscreen should not be your first line of defense- think sun avoidance and limiting your skin’s exposure to the sun’s rays.
  • Do not use tanning salons, lamps or beds, as this UV exposure has proven to be particularly dangerous.
  • Avoid sun exposure during peak hours, which are 10am-4pm. Seek out shady spots when outdoors.
  • Wear protective clothing, including long sleeved shirts, pants, a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses. You can choose clothing with built in SPF or use a product to add SPF to clothes in the laundry.
  • When choosing clothing, remember that a darker color and tighter weave provide more protection. An ordinary white T-shirt has an SPF of only 3!
  • Don’t forget your eyes. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that have UV filtering. Sun damage to the eyes can lead to early cataracts.
  • Choose a sunscreen that is "broad spectrum" meaning that it blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater everyday (SPF of 30 for children), even in the winter. Sunscreen use is especially important for children because sunburns during childhood greatly increase the risk of melanoma in adulthood.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally. An average adult needs at least 2 tablespoons of sunscreen to get good coverage and most people do not use enough. If your bottle of sunscreen last more than a few months, you probably aren’t using enough!
  • Don’t forget to protect your lips, neck and ears with SPF, as these are common sites of skin cancer due to lack of protection. If you have thinning hair or are bald, wear a hat to protect your scalp.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating, as no sunscreen is truly waterproof.

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