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How To Protect Your Skin During Radiation Treatment for Breast Cancer
I am frequently asked by those just about to begin radiation treatment for breast cancer what cream or lotion or ointment they can use to minimize the harsh effects of the radiation on their skin. That’s a great question and I’m always glad that they know this is important. I will answer it shortly. First it’s important to know what the possible side effects of radiation are.
The Skin Problems You May Encounter With Radiation
Taking care of your skin during and after radiation treatment is really important. Some of the skin changes that can be experienced during radiation treatment include redness, itching, dryness, swelling and peeling. In some extreme cases there can also be blistering (as with a sunburn), infections, fever and swelling – these symptoms should always be reported to your doctor.
Most of these effects do go away within weeks but sometimes people are left with long-term problems with their skin, such as fibrosis and/or pigmentation changes. For those who have had mastectomies, followed by radiation, followed by breast reconstruction with tissue expanders, there can be real problems. If nothing is done to manage the side effects of the radiation therapy, the skin can often be quite damaged and this makes the tissue expanders and silicone implants used with breast reconstruction more difficult and uncomfortable because radiated skin can lose its elasticity and be tight and dry.
What NOT To Use
Some women are recommended to have a product such as Eucerin Aquaphor healing ointment. Now I don’t wish to denigrate a company’s product but no one should be putting this stuff on their breast (or anywhere else for that matter). Here is the list of ingredients:
Petrolatum, Mineral oil, Ceresin, Lanolin Alcohol, Panthenol, Glycerin, Bisabolol. These look pretty harmless unless you know something about these ingredients.
Petrolatum is a by-product of the petroleum industry, it’s full of xenoestrogens (environmental estrogens) that put us at a higher risk for breast cancer. No way you should be using anything with petrolatum in the ingredients. Mineral oil is no better, It’s an extremely cheap and commonly used byproduct from crude oil and is a known xenoestrogen. For more information on xenoestrogens, see my article Protect Yourself From Xenoestrogens and Estrogen Dominance.
Ceresin is a wax derived from ozocerite, a naturally occurring fossil wax found near soft shale. That sounds safe, right? Maybe not. This ingredient has been shown to cause skin irritation and sensitization in some people. You can check it out on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database (reference below).
Lanolin is a wax obtained from the sebaceous gland of sheep. Years ago, lanolin was a good thing and has been used down through the centuries for moisturizing the skin and for softening leather. Sounds nice and natural, right? But there are hidden problems with lanolin. For one thing, lanolin is removed from sheepskin and wool with chemical scouring. Also, sheep are routinely dipped in pesticides and chemicals such as organochlorine, organophosphate, and pyrethroid to kill parasites. You can be sure that these toxic chemicals will concentrate in the lanolin – studies show that these chemicals bind to lanolin because of its waxy consistency and become concentrated in the lanolin. No way do you want to use anything with lanolin in it on your irradiated tissues.
Panthenol is derived from vitamin B-5. I have no problem with this ingredient, as far as I know, it is a safe ingredient.
Glycerin is chemically produced by combining water and fat, usually from vegetables, and while that sounds nice and natural (you can guess what’s coming!), these days it is generally made from GMO (genetically modified) vegetables such as corn and beets, and people are beginning to have problems with this. Sometimes glycerin is derived from the jatropha plant and back in 2012 the FDA sent out a notification that oils, glycerin, and proteins, if derived from the jatropha plant, may contain toxins. Glycerin actually draws moisture from the lower layers of the skin and holds it on the surface, thus drying the skin from the inside out and that won’t help you during radiotherapy.
Bisabolol is a plant-based chemical derived from certain essential oils. In this formulation it is probably not organically grown, so may be another source of toxic chemicals.
Parabens are chemical preservatives. Be sure not to use anything that contains propylparaben or methylparaben, these are usually the last ingredient in the list, they are associated with breast tumors. Prof Darbre at Reading University in the UK has been studying the effect of parabens on breast tissue for many years and has observed that 99% of human breast tissue samples collected contained parabens. Her most recent research appears below. Parabens are causing major problems for our breast health.
You Have To Be A Label Reader!
All of this just shows why I teach that you MUST become a label reader when it comes to your body products and cosmetics. You have to know what’s in them, otherwise you may just be putting yourself at risk for breast cancer (or risk of recurrence).
I am frequently asked for my recommendation on what to do about keeping skin healthy and protected against the burning experienced during radiotherapy so I am happy to share that here. Although I chose not to have radiotherapy, a number of my coaching clients have used this protocol and it works wonderfully, includes no toxic chemicals nor (most importantly) anything that would hamper the radiotherapy process.
Avoid The Burned Boob! Marnie’s Skin Protection Protocol During Radiotherapy Treatments
Two weeks prior to commencement of radiotherapy, follow this routine daily. Once radiotherapy commences, follow this routine twice per day, but making sure not to do this within an hour prior to radiotherapy appointment.
- Using a cotton pad soaked in organic calendula officinalis oil, apply liberally to area to be irradiated. It will soak in and should leave no residue that you need to wash off.
- Once that has soaked in, then apply a sufficient quantity of organic aloe vera gel. Saturate tissue with this.
- Lastly, dilute 1-2 drops of a high grade organic lavender essential oil in one teaspoonful of organic coconut oil or organic hempseed oil and apply that to the area.
- Repeat again at bedtime or the next morning, but not within one hour of the next radiotherapy session.
So to recap – two weeks prior to commencement of radiotherapy, you are following this protocol once per day. Once radiotherapy commences, you are using the calendula oil, the aloe vera gel, and the lavender oil mixed with coconut or hempseed oil twice per day (or more as your skin requires). Continue this procedure on the weekends as well and continue doing this for at least three weeks after the treatments end. The difference between following this protocol and not doing it is quite stunning. For my clients who follow this protocol, expressions of amazement and delight are frequently made by the radiology tech people, who can’t believe their patients are faring so well.
Why does it work so well?
The calendula oil helps to heal the skin and works better than the commonly prescribed remedies, and it has anti-cancer properties. The aloe vera gel is well known for its burn healing benefits, plus one study showed it may also assist radiotherapy to do its job better. The lavender oil helps to heal burns and wounds and has natural anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, pain relieving and anti-cancer properties. Coconut oil helps to heal burns and keeps the skin well nourished with its essential fatty acids. Hempseed oil has pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-cancer, anti-fungal and neuroprotective properties.
Other tips – keep the area out of the sun while you are going through radiotherapy. Wear loose fitting cotton or natural fiber clothing. Avoid chlorine whenever you can, both in swimming pools and in shower water (use a good shower filter).
For more information on the healing effects of calendula, see my article The Benefits of Calendula Officinalis for Radiodermatitis. Also learn how curcumin can help you at this time: Going Through Radiotherapy For Breast Cancer? Better Take Curcumin
Relationship between everyday use cosmetics and female breast cancer — http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24694726
Parabens can enable hallmarks and characteristics of cancer in human breast epithelial cells: a review of the literature with reference to new exposure data and regulatory status — http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25047802
Phase III Randomized Trial of Calendula Officinalis Compared with Trolamine for the Prevention of Acute Dermatitis During Irradiation for Breast Cancer – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15084618
Anti-inflammatory, Anti-tumor-promoting, and Cytotoxic Activities of Constituents of Marigold (Calendula Officinalis) Flowers – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17190444
Radio Sensitizing Effect of Aloe Polysaccharide on Pancreatic Cancer Bxpc-3 Cells – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27393447
Burn Wound Healing Property of Cocos Nucifera: an Appraisal – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792613/
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I understand that radiation therapy works when removing cancer cells. However, I do think it’s good to take extra care of your skin while in therapy. Reading labels and being aware of what you’re putting on your skin is essential. Thanks for sharing!
It’s wonderful that you have developed a protocol for women to prevent the “boob burn from radiation”. I am grateful for your timely information which is putting me more at ease. Thank you
I’m happy to be of assistance to you. Let me know how you get on.
I had a double mastectomy and daily radiation 4 yrs ago and still clear. My neck was not involved but it has changed the pigmentation to a dark red like I’d been sunburned about a year and half ago. I never thought about it possibly being from my 45 day radiation regimen till now. Besides making a dermatology appointment in the morning can you suggest anything?
Thanks for sharing that with me. It’s much easier to prevent than to repair after the fact but you might try applying organic aloe vera and organic calendula infused oil to the area and see if that helps you. My protocol for prevention appears here: https://marnieclark.com/how-to-protect-your-skin-during-radiation-treatment-for-breast-cancer/ I wish you all the best – let me know how you get on!
Thank u. Is it op late to start taking cucumerin if I’m starting tstiadion in 4 days
No, it’s not too late to start taking curcumin! It’s amazing for its anti-cancer and protective properties. Go ahead – get it in you!
Radiation I mean
several yrs ago when I went thru radiation, my oncologist was amazed that I did not get a rash or burn (I am a light skinned redhead) He asked what color was the aloe I used! I told him aloe was clear. He said some of his patients used blue or green which they got from the $ store. I went and looked at it and sure enough it was a little less expensive than the real product, but had way less aloe and artifical coloring. I was amazed that people would go thru all that and skimp a few dollars on junk.
Also wish I had found your site before getting the radiation-would never have gone thru that at all. thank you for all you are doing for other women
Hi Terry! Nice to hear from you! Hope you are doing well now. Thanks for your comments on my webpage. I suspect that for those using the cheap, toxin-laden aloe products, it’s more a matter of not being informed about how bad they are. That’s why I’m trying to get the word out – so people have the information they need to get well.
Nice site, what is the alternative I can do if I don’t want to go through radiotherapy as I’m not sure I want it
Info coming your way via email.
Hi Marnie. My friend just sent your website to me. I have HER2 breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy 05/18 and have implants.? I had 6 rounds of chemo before the mastectomy and 6 more rounds after surgery. The cancer came back in my skin in my right breast in lumps on top of the implant. I just finished 6 rounds of chemo 01/20. Now I started radiation Monday 2/17/20 and today will be my 3rd day. I am scheduled for 6 weeks 5 days a week. I asked about what to use on my skin and the suggested aquaphor. I’m so glad my friend suggested your site. I will be picking up the items you suggested. I hope it’s not too late. What can I use on my skin overall? I have been using aquaphor instead of Vaseline thinking it was better. What could I have done instead of radiation? I’m so frustrated because I had chemo twice now this. I had herceptin/perjecta, taxol, clausphoben the first time. I just completed 6 rounds of Kadcyla. My oncologist wants me to take more chemo after this – a new drug after radiation! I can’t! Please help!
Wow – sounds like you’re going through a rough time. I’ll send you some info this morning via email.
I went through 4 weeks of radiation on right side. They gave me some suggestions of aquafor, another anti fungal drug in a tube to apply topically and something for itching. I had been using a Beta, Glucan product on my face and decided to use it on my breast, lots of it twice a day before I applied the others. I never had even a blister and no itching at all.
Yikes! Aquaphor, wouldn’t recommend that stuff to anyone. I’m glad you’re using a beta glucan product, and that you found it useful during the radiation. Thanks for sharing that with us.
What’s a good coconut oil to use?
I just use a good organic one from the grocery store. Works fine.
What else could I use If I’m sensitive to lavender ?
A high quality lavender should not induce skin sensitivity – if it does, I’d suggest changing brands. All essential oils are not created equally! You don’t strictly speaking have to include lavender though, but it is excellent for avoiding burns. Leave it out of the mix if even the high quality brands irritate you.
Just to clarify before starting this regimen, Marnie – is the calendula oil supposed to be infused or neat? Does it matter what it’s infused with?
I’m a longtime follower of your wise guidance. Were you just getting started when I went thru my first bout in 2004? You are a solid rock for me in turbulent times! 🙏💗
Great question – yes the calendula is an infused oil. It should be infused with an organic carrier oil, something like almond if you can get that. I make my own. I’ll email you a link to a good one.
Sounds like we were both going through breast cancer in 2004. Thanks so much for your kind words – happy to be of assistance to you.
I’m going through radiation & following your protocol. It is working well with the exception of my nipples. I had reconstruction surgery, so the skin has felt different since the surgery.
Any thoughts on “an extra moisturizing boost” for my nipples? Of course the doctors want me to use Curel.
I’m glad the protocol is working for the rest of your breast. Re the nipple skin – are these reconstructed nipples or your own skin? Because reconstructed nipples can be at high risk during radiation therapy. Let me know!