Radiation therapy can save your life if you have cancer. Whether used alone or in conjunction with chemotherapy or surgery, radiation therapy can shrink your cancer and add months or years to your life. While you know the importance of keeping up with your appointments, you also know that the treatment can cause a lot of discomfort while it's doing its job. One common ailment caused by radiation is a skin condition called radiation dermatitis.
What Is Radiation Dermatitis?
Radiation dermatitis is a type of skin-tissue damage that is caused by radiation therapy, which is often used for cancer treatments. There are two types of the condition: Acute radiation dermatitis occurs during or shortly after treatment, and chronic radiation dermatitis can occur or persist for many years after treatment has ended. American Nurse Today explains that there are five stages of the disorder, ranging from mild skin redness resembling sunburn to life-threatening ulcerations and infections that can lead to the last stage, which is death. It's important to understand that your healthcare team will do everything possible to prevent your dermatitis from progressing to the later stages.
Feeling Better with Radiation Dermatitis
You will receive medications (oral or topical) that will help keep your radiation dermatitis under control. It's important to follow your doctor's instructions precisely; using more or less of the medication than has been prescribed can cause additional problems, so apply the amount indicated and keep up with your doses. In addition, here are some ways that you can minimize your discomfort and help the area heal.
Take good care of yourself. If you are battling cancer, you already know that some days you feel better while other days you feel worse. Honor the way you feel and be sure to get enough sleep, get the nutrition you need whenever possible, and spend time with friends and family. These actions will help you cope better in general, and this can distract you from your discomfort at times.
Keep compresses and water lukewarm. Use tepid water to wash the area because hot water can irritate it and make it feel worse. Don't apply ice to the lesion before talking to your nurse or doctor; temperature extremes in either direction can cause additional tissue damage and pain.
Wear only soft clothing. Depending on the site of your radiation dermatitis, you might be able to not wear anything on it. If it's on your torso or other areas, however, you may need to wear clothing. Choose light cotton fabrics without elastic or scratchy areas. If you need to keep the area covered, ask your nurse what type of gauze you should use and don't use adhesive tape on the area itself; choose a bigger dressing and apply the tape on healthy skin only.
Don't apply lotions without talking to your healthcare providers. Some types of creams or ointments can cause irritation or further tissue damage. In addition, it might leave a residue that can make your radiation less effective. If you want to keep the area moisturized, ask your nurse what type of lotion or cream you can use.
Keep the radiated area out of the sun. The sun can cause burning, which is very dangerous to the area. It's best to cover your radiation site with clothing that will block the sun's rays. You might be able to use sunscreen, but always check with your healthcare provider first.
Radiation dermatitis is a common side effect of radiation therapy, and it can cause pain, discomfort, and frustration. While you are dealing with this, consider talking to someone such as a counselor or social worker who is experienced in helping patients with cancer. He or she can help you see the light at the end of the tunnel, which very well may be cancer-free. You can also talk with a medical professional, such as one at Firelands Regional Medical Center, for more information.