How will radiation therapy for breast cancer affect my skin?

During your treatment, radiation must pass through your skin. You might notice some skin changes in the area exposed to radiation. Your breast skin might become red, swollen, warm, and sensitive — as if you had sunburn. It might peel or become moist and tender. Depending on the dose of radiation you receive, you might notice a loss of hair or decreased perspiration within the treated area.

These skin reactions are common and temporary. They will subside gradually within four to six weeks of completing treatment. The skin can become infected if it is open. Look for drainage such as pus or if skin changes appear outside the treated area, inform your doctor or primary nurse.

Long-term side effects, which can last up to a year or longer after treatment, might include:

  • A slight darkening of the skin
  • Enlarged pores on the breast
  • Increased or decreased sensitivity of the skin
  • A thickening of breast tissue or skin
  • A change in the size of the breast
  • Chronic tenderness at the treatment site

Side effects

How can I reduce skin reactions caused by radiation therapy?

Gently cleanse the treated area using lukewarm water and a mild soap such as Ivory®, Dove®, Neutrogena®, Basis®, Castille®, or Aveeno® Oatmeal Soap. In addition:

  • Do not rub your skin. Pat your skin dry with a soft towel or use a hair dryer on a cool setting.
  • Do not scratch or rub the treated area.
  • Do not apply any ointment, cream, lotion, or powder to the treated area unless your radiation oncologist or nurse has prescribed it for you.
  • Do not apply cosmetics, shaving lotions, or perfumes on the treated area.
  • Use only an electric razor if you need to shave within the treated area.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing or clothes made from harsh fabrics such as wool or corduroy. These fabrics can irritate the skin. Instead, choose clothes made from natural fibers such as cotton.
  • Do not apply medical tape or bandages to the treated area.
  • Do not expose the treated area to extreme heat or cold. Avoid using an electric heating pad, hot water bottle, or ice pack.
  • Do not expose the treated area to direct sunlight. Sun exposure might intensify your skin reaction and lead to severe sunburn. Choose a sunblock/sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. Protect yourself from direct sunlight even after your course of treatment has been completed.

Why are there marks on my skin?

Small marks resembling freckles will be tattooed on your skin along the treatment area by the radiation therapist. These marks provide a permanent outline of your treatment area. Do not try to wash these marks off or retouch them if they fade. The therapist will re-mark the treatment area when necessary.

Will radiation therapy make me tired?

Everyone has a different level of energy, so radiation treatment will affect each patient differently. Patients frequently experience fatigue after several weeks of treatment. For most patients, this fatigue is mild. However, a loss of energy might require some patients to change their daily routine.

If your doctor thinks it might be necessary for you to limit your activity, he or she will discuss it with you.

To minimize fatigue while you are receiving radiation treatment:

  • Be sure to get enough rest.
  • Eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet.
  • Pace your activities and plan frequent rest periods.

What side effects are associated with accelerated partial breast irradiation?

Some patients experienced redness, pain, fluid collection, and bruising, but remember that these side effects often happen with breast surgery and traditional radiation. A patient may experience drainage from the catheter site.

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