Sunshine and cancer treatment

Monday 28 January 2019

Sunshine, for most of us, gives us a lift in mood. Researchers have shown that sunshine affects our mood, boosting seratonin levels, and increasing vitamin D levels.

However, I’m aware that for many of you who are mid, and post cancer treatment, sun is a mixed blessing. For some people on a range of medications, including some chemotherapies, as well as radiotherapy, they are best avoiding direct sunlight on their skin.

In some cases people can develop photosensitivity, which is ‘an abnormally increased skin sensitivity to the sun's ultraviolet rays (UVR) brought on by certain medications and medical conditions.’ The definition, as well as a detailed list of the many cancer drugs and other medications that can cause photosensitivity is detailed at the end of this blog, in a link from the Skin Cancer Foundation. (It is an American website, so occasionally drug names are different.)

I’d like to give a few tips on how to be safe in the sun when you’re going through chemotherapy. Some of the tips are common sense, but it’s always useful to have a reminder:-

  •  The sun is at its hottest and fiercest between about 10am and 3pm…so it’s probably wise not to to stay out in the sun too much between these times…
  •  Be aware of the contents of some sunscreens. It should be at least SPF 15-30, according to most cancer information websites. Some sunscreens work better than others, and the chemicals in some sunscreens may be irritating to your already sensitive skin. Chuck out last year’s bottle or tube of sunscreen…it’s best to use fresh supplies..
  •  You can’t really rely on sunscreen alone. It’s time to don a wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved, loose-fitting clothing, so the sensitive areas of your body are covered. This is particularly important if you’re strolling along the beach…
  •  There are sunblocks available…and these can be effective…it may be worth checking with your oncologist or specialist nurse which products they have found to be safest to wear when on chemo. Also protect your lips…there are sunscreens specially for them, that are not harmful if you lick your lips!
  •  Find a place in the shade under a tree or sit under an umbrella. I was at our local summer show at the weekend, and could see lots of people sizzling in the sunshine, from my frequent retreats under the leafy trees.
  •  The sun can be a strain on your eyes, so if you can, wear sunglasses with UV protection..

The effects of the chemotherapy can last for a couple of months after your treatment has finished, so you will still need to take care and avoid the sun. It may be annoying to realise that whilst before chemo you were ok in the sunshine, you’ve suddenly become much more sensitive.

Radiotherapy causes your skin to be sensitive too, so protect any radiated areas in particular. Sunshine seems to stimulate a 'recall' of the original radiotherapy skin side effects, even when the acute skin effects have healed...and this may be the case for the first few years post radiotherapy treatment. It's best to cover the area with loose clothing, or wear a high factor sunscreen.

Anyone who has developed lymphoedema following cancer treatment will have been advised by their clinical team to avoid getting sunburnt or insect bites on the affected limb. It can cause inflammation, infection and cause cellulitis, which can need high dose antibiotics.

Any of us reading this who are not currently living with cancer and its effects, have also got to be sun aware. Skin cancer is on the rise, and Macmillan Cancer Support notes that ‘Ultraviolet (UV) light (UVA and UVB) from the sun is the main environmental cause of most skin cancers’.

I may have cast a shadow on the recent arrival of sunshine for you. I’m expressing a kindly word of caution. You can read up more about ‘tans and skin cancer in the resources links below

As we've finally got some sunshine, I’m now going to have a long cool drink…and will defer taking the dog for a walk till after 3 pm….after all, Noel Coward said only ‘Mad dogs & Englishmen go out in the midday sun’…..

Warm wishes


(Blog originally written by Sue Long, CSS, 14 Jul 2016 - Updated April 2020)

Useful links

The Skin Cancer Foundation photosensitivity report - medications      - Skin Cancer Foundation.

Taking care while you’re away      - Macmillan Cancer Support

Skin cancer prevention      -  Skin Cancer Foundation

Causes and risk factors of skin cancer  -   Macmillan Cancer Support

Sun, UV and cancer     - Cancer Research UK

Sunbeds and cancer     - Cancer Research UK

Summer skin care   -   Breast

Protecting your skin from the sun     -  Cancer.Net

Sun care after breast cancer treatment   Breast Cancer Now

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