Sun care after breast cancer treatment
PUBLISHED ON: 2 May 2019
You may be concerned about the effects of hot weather during and after breast cancer treatment.
Our nurse, Rachel, suggests ways to look after your skin and stay comfortable in the heat this summer, including going in the sun after radiotherapy, what to do if you have lymphoedema, protecting your scalp, and managing hot flushes.
Top sun-safety tips after breast cancer treatment
- Use a high sun protection factor (SPF) sunscreen and apply regularly, particularly after swimming.
- Moisturise your skin regularly
- Wear loose-fitting, cotton or bamboo clothing. Some bamboo fabrics protect you from UVA and UVB. Keep your head covered in the sun
- Avoid the hottest part of the day (11am–3pm)
- Drink plenty of water at regular intervals
- Check with your hospital team or doctor before swimming
- Use a high sun protection factor (SPF) sunscreen and apply regularly, particularly after swimming
- Use insect repellent (if required), particularly at night
Can I go in the sun after radiotherapy or chemotherapy?
Breast cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy can make skin more sensitive.
If you’re having radiotherapy, don’t expose the treated area to the sun until your radiotherapy has finished and any skin reaction has settled down.
The skin in the treated area will remain sensitive to the sun for some time after treatment so you will need to use sunscreen.
Take care in the sun by covering your skin and wearing a hat. Use a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) and avoid the hottest part of the day (11am–3pm). Remember, it’s also possible to get sunburnt through clothing, so apply sunscreen underneath your clothes too. You may want to look at clothes that are made of bamboo fabric. Some bamboo fabrics naturally protect you from the sun.
How long after radiotherapy can I go swimming?
You may want to avoid swimming during radiotherapy and shortly afterwards (until any skin reactions have healed), as a wet swimsuit can rub the skin and cause discomfort. Chemicals in a swimming pool may also make the skin dry and irritated. Talk to a member of your treatment team if you normally swim regularly and want to continue.
Which sunscreen should I use?
Sunscreens generally fit into two categories, mineral or chemical.
Mineral sunscreens act as a physical barrier that works immediately after you apply it, blocking both UVA (sun rays that lead to premature aging and wrinkles) and UVB (rays that cause sunburn).
Chemical sunscreens use ingredients that absorb UV rays and break them down before they reach the skin, but need to be applied 20 to 30 minutes before you go out in the sun.
Both types of sun screen should be reapplied at least every two hours.
There are so many sunscreens on the market but it’s important to find one that you’re likely to use on a regular basis.
I have lymphoedema, do I need to take extra care in the sun?
Lymphoedema causes the skin to stretch and it can become dry, flaky, itchy and prone to infection. Wear loose clothing with long sleeves to protect the affected area from the sun along with your sunscreen, and wear a compression garment if you’ve been given one by your specialist. You can still get burnt through compression garments, particularly synthetic ones. Your lymphoedema specialist can advise you on which garments will offer the most sun protection.
Try to avoid extremes of temperature – getting too hot then too cold, or too cold then too hot.
What can I do to protect my scalp?
If you’ve lost your hair because of chemotherapy or your hair is just starting to grow back, keep your head covered while outside to help prevent burning. You may also want to apply sunscreen to your scalp. The most comfortable head coverings in the heat are made from natural fabrics that are gentle on the scalp and allows the skin to breathe.
Wigs can sometimes feel hot and itchy, particularly in warmer weather, but you can try wearing a thin cotton or bamboo lining under your wig. You can buy these from wig suppliers or find them online.
Find out about hair loss tips for all seasons.
What can help with hot flushes?
Menopausal symptoms, including hot flushes, can be caused by breast cancer treatments. Hot flushes can vary for each person, from a couple a day to a few every hour. They range from a mild sensation of warming that just affects the face, to waves of heat throughout the body. Some women also experience drenching perspiration affecting the entire body.
Hot flushes can feel more intense during hot weather, so keep cool by using a fan, wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing and drinking plenty of water. Getting to know what triggers your hot flushes can help you avoid them.
I’m travelling abroad what else do I need to think about?
If you’re travelling to a hotter, tropical area you may need to use insect repellent, particularly at night, to avoid bites and stings. Bites from insects such as mosquitos can become infected and are very uncomfortable.
If you have lymphoedema it’s a good idea to ask your GP for some antibiotics to take with you. This is so you can start taking them immediately if you develop an infection in the area affected by lymphoedema.
If you’re having chemotherapy, you may also be advised to avoid swimming pools. This is because chemotherapy affects your immune system’s ability to fight infection, which might make you more susceptible to any germs in the water. If you do want to go swimming, discuss it with your treatment team first.
Check with your doctor if you’ll need any vaccinations or preventive medication before you travel. Live vaccinations (such as yellow fever) are not recommended during chemotherapy or for six months afterwards, as they could cause serious infections. While inactivated vaccines (such as cholera and typhoid) are safe during and after treatment, they may be less effective if you have a weakened immune system. This may be the case in the first six months after chemotherapy. Talk to your treatment team about the best time to have any injections.