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The effects of treatment on your skin.

It is important to speak with your treatment team if you experience skin changes.  Not everyone being treated will have side effects. You may find it reassuring to talk to your doctor and nurses about your treatment and possible effects.

The aim of treatment for cancer is to destroy or remove cancer cells. The most common treatments are surgery, drug therapy (chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy) and radiation therapy (radiotherapy). These can be used either alone or in combination.


Chemotherapy damages cells that are dividing rapidly in the body, such as cancer cells. Some normal cells, such as skin cells, can also be damaged and when these normal  cells are damaged, side effects may occur. It may cause changes to the texture, colour or health of your skin.  These effects depend on the chemotherapy drug, the dose and length of treatment and if you are having other treatments.

Skin changes that can occur with some chemotherapy treatments include.

  • peeling skin
  • more sensitive to light
  • changes in skin colour
  • acne like rash
  • dryness and itching
  • redness and swelling
  • brittle and dry nails


The effect of radiation therapy on your skin depends on many factors. These include the dose and strength of the radiotherapy, the number of treatments, the site and if you are receiving other treatments such as chemotherapy.

Damage to the skin cells is usually temporary. The chance of developing problems with your skin depends on the treatment you have. Talk to your doctors and nurses about your treatment and side effects.

Skin changes due to radiotherapy can look and feel like sunburn.

These include:

  • dry skin and itching
  • change in colour (look red, sunburnt or tanned)
  • redness and swelling
  • thinning of the skin
  • pain or tenderness at the site


Immunotherapy side effects are different to the side effects of other cancer treatments and need to be managed differently.

Skin reactions that can occur with immunotherapy treatments include skin rash and itching, which could be dermatitis, making the skin red, bumpy and itchy.

Side effects can be better managed if reported early, so it is important to let your cancer care team know about new or worsening symptoms, even if they seem minor.

How to care for your skin

Inspect your skin daily for any signs of redness, swelling or discomfort. Ask the nurse at the hospital to show you how to do this.

There are things you can do to help lessen the effects from treatment on your skin.

These include:

  • Ensure you are eating healthy foods and drinking fluids. Some gentle exercise is useful too.
  • Wear loose, non-restrictive clothing.
  • Wear clothes made from soft natural fibres like cotton. Avoid synthetic fabrics and heavy wool.
  • Avoid extremes in temperatures i.e. hot water bottles, ice packs, hair dryers.
  • Bathe/shower with lukewarm water.
  • Gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel rather than rubbing it.
  • Keep skin folds dry.
  • Check with your doctor before using soap, perfume, deodorant, talcum powder, creams or cosmetics on the treated area.
  • Don’t shave or wax until your skin is healed. You could use an electric razor if required.
  • Use a mild detergent to wash your clothing if you have sensitive skin.
  • Avoid chlorinated swimming pools, spas and saunas as the water can make skin changes worse. Check with your doctor about swimming in the sea.
  • Protect your skin from sunlight.  This should include the following SunSmart strategies, used in combination, for maximum protection –
    • Slip on clothing that covers as much skin as possible; it’s one of the best barriers between your skin and the sun.
    • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen 50+ to non-treatment areas or skin not irritated.
    • Slap on a hat that provides plenty of protection to the face, neck and ears. Broad brimmed, bucket or legionnaire style hats are recommended.
    • Seek shade when you are outdoors. Staying under a tree and umbrella can reduce your overall exposure to UV radiation.
    • Slide on some sunglasses that are close fitting, wraparound and cover as much of the eye area as possible. Look for EPF 10 on the label for maximum UV protection.
  • Avoid the use of sunscreen in the treatment area or on irritated, itchy skin.

Remember: Let the doctor or nurse know if you have any pain, redness, peeling or problems with your skin or nails. The sooner problems are dealt with, the better the outcome.

Dealing with more specific skin problems

  • Try to drink 1–2 litres of fluids (water, juice, etc) a day.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse what type of cream to use to moisturise the skin. Start moisturising your skin from the first day treatment starts, even before you notice any skin changes.
  • Avoid hot showers, use lukewarm water.
  • Use a soap free wash.
  • Gentle shampoos can be used for a dry scalp.
  • Add a few drops of baby oil or vegetable oil to your bath water.
  • Avoid harsh laundry powders, scented soaps or bubble baths.
  • Shower with warm water.
  • Avoid sweating or ensure you wash/shower if you sweat excessively.
  • Cool compresses applied to the area for 20 minutes can provide relief.
  • Protect your skin from the sun.
  • Do not use cosmetics to cover blemishes on the skin receiving radiation treatment.
  • Protect skin from direct heat or cold. Avoid hair dryers, hot water bottles, heat packs, wheat bags or icepacks on the area that has been treated.
  • Problems with your skin or nails can be prevented, treated or relieved. Seek help from the doctor or nurse as soon as symptoms occur.

Care of your nails

Chemotherapy drugs can cause mild and temporary changes in your nails. Nails may become darker than usual, develop ridges or white lines across them, and become brittle and dry or lift off the nail bed.

  • Avoid repeated trauma or friction to the nail beds such as cutting your cuticles, artificial nails, nail biting, or manicuring.
  • Apply topical unscented moisturisers to cuticles every day.
  • Wear rubber gloves when doing dishes, housework or gardening.
  • Keep nails trimmed, not to short, smooth edges with a nail file.

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