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Types of skin problems with cancer

How cancer and cancer treatment can affect the skin. 

Itching

Some types of cancer produce substances that cause itching. Some types of treatment can also make you itchy. Itching can be very distressing.There are treatments and things you can do to help control it.

Sweating

There are several reasons why you may sweat a lot when you have cancer. Sweating can be very troublesome and embarrassing. There are treatments and things you can do to help control it.   

Pressure sores

Pressure sores are wounds that develop when the skin is damaged by constant pressure or friction. When you have cancer, you are at risk of developing pressure sores if you can’t move around very well.

If your skin is very dry or very sweaty it is also more likely to get sore. But remember there are things you can do to help prevent pressure sores.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines say that people who are at risk of developing pressure sores should have a special mattress. They also say that a health professional should make an assessment to help prevent pressure sores.

Treatment-related skin reactions

Some treatments for cancer can cause problems with your skin. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned. It may be that you need treatment with steroid or antibiotic creams or tablets.

Biological and hormone therapy

Some types of biological therapy and hormone therapy cause skin rashes. Biological therapies called EGFR inhibitors are most likely to cause skin reactions such as a rash and itching. These include erlotinib and cetuximab.

If you have a severe rash, you may need treatment with steroid creams or tablets, or antibiotic creams or tablets.

Chemotherapy

Some chemotherapy drugs can make your skin dry and itchy or more sensitive to the sun.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can also cause skin problems. The effects vary from one person to another and depend on:

  • your skin type
  • the part of the body you are having treated
  • the amount of radiotherapy you have

The reaction can be mild, with just some reddening or darkening of your skin. Or it can be more serious and make the skin break down.

High-dose cancer treatments

High dose cancer treatments, such as bone marrow and stem cell transplants can cause graft versus host disease - called GVHD for short.

In GVHD the immune cells from your donor attack your body’s own cells. It can cause a number of different symptoms, including a skin rash, which can be itchy and painful. 

Ulcerating tumours

Some cancers can spread into the skin and develop into an ulcerating wound. This means the wound won’t heal. It is very rare, but is commonest in breast cancers and head and neck cancers.

Treatment may help the wound to heal. You might have chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, biological therapy, or a combination of treatments.

You may also have the wound covered (dressed). District nurses are often the nurse who will dress your wound when you are at home. They can also help with specific problems such as wounds that smell which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. There are specialised dressings which can help reduce this. 

Lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is a build up of fluid in the tissues, which causes swelling. It is most likely to affect the arms and legs, but can happen in other areas of the body as well. The fluid build up is due to lymph vessels getting blocked. This can happen when a tumour presses on them, or following surgery or radiotherapy.

Lymphoedema can make your skin feel tight and uncomfortable. It can also make it dry and crack easily. It helps to keep your skin moisturised. When washing an area of the body that has lymphoedema, make sure the skin is thoroughly dried by air drying or gently using a towel. Don't rub it dry as the skin is likely to be delicate.

It is important not to damage or injure the affected area. For example, don’t have blood taken from your arm if you have had treatment that increases your risk of lymphoedema or if you already have lymphoedema. You should also avoid getting sunburnt.

Skin cancer

This section is about the different ways cancer and treatment can affect your skin.

If you are looking for information specifically about skin cancer or melanoma skin cancer, this isn't the right section for you. 

Last reviewed: 
11 May 2016
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