Love the skin you’re in

When starting my radiation journey, I scoured the internet to see what was being claimed as the “best” products to use during radiation

Even in my support groups, the number of products being thrown around or at-home remedies was intense. I found that sticking to the age-old saying of “Keep It Simple Stupid” was really the most beneficial option – for me.

How do you decide which of these products is actually good, and which one of these is a gimmick? Honestly, you don’t.

Everybody’s body is different, what works for Jane Doe may not always work for Katie Smith. Our body compositions are all entirely unique and the best advice a friend of mine who is a Radiation Oncology Nurse told me was “less is more”.

Combining different lotions all at once, (especially ones that you’ve never used before) can cause a reaction while undergoing treatment, and your team won’t know if it’s from the radiation itself or the lotions you’re using.

If you want to try out some new products that stake a claim in being made especially for radiation treatment, I would highly suggest putting the lotion on days (if not weeks) before you actually begin treatment. That way you can see at your baseline if you get a reaction.

The thing you need to be aware of is making sure the products don’t contain any alcohol, or scents (including essential oils). Alcohol will dry you out and is not fun to apply when you’re burnt, the same goes for scents; which will more than likely sting as you’re applying them.

Breast cancer radiation treatment
Starting Radiation

Every treatment center is different in what they give to their patients as far as prescription creams. My specific center only gave me a steroid cream and told me to apply it 2x a day. I had to really advocate for myself to tell them that I would be using Aquaphor along with it because I know my skin the best, and I’m going to need all the moisturizing I can get.

Steroid Creams have a tendency to dry your skin as well and I didn’t want to be playing catch-up with the burns I inevitably knew I’d be dealing with.

Since radiation is cumulative, you won’t start seeing the “burns” until about weeks 2-3 but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be obsessively applying your choice of lotions before then. Radiation is all about staying ahead of the game for as long as you possibly can – because once you start to go downhill, it’s a slippery slope to try and get back to “normal”.

Despite my friend giving me a cheat sheet of tips and tricks to be mindful of during treatment, I had a few bouts of chemo brain, where I had my own “oops” moments. I can honestly tell you that if I would have remembered to avoid them, my skin would have been a whole lot better to deal with – and that’s with me not even to really see I had any sort of radiation done to the naked eye.

Because of those “oops” moments, I’m pretty sure those mistakes lead me to feel absolutely miserable by the end of Week 4.

I (mistakenly) had tried a calendula cream that someone had given to me without realizing it contained essential oils. I don’t think I ever screamed so loudly in my life. Honestly, it was bad, and since you can’t scrub your skin or use water that’s hot, I just had to let it burn.

Knowing that exercise is crucial during treatment (at a minimum you want 150 minutes of movement per week to increase the oxygen flow in your body), I was still keeping up with my workout schedule. This includes running. I had to wear a sports bra (as per my plastic surgeon), which caused me to have some friction burn under my foob and in my armpit. I would suggest sticking exercises that don’t require you to wear a sports bra or any motions that cause constant skin-to-skin contact.

Now, I bet you’re wondering what the actual lotions/creams I used during treatment were so I’ll outline them for you below:

Once the 1-week mark had passed, it was like my body hit a light switch to kick into recovery mode. The peeling became more apparent in my armpit, under my foob, and on the top of my chest, but the pain began to subside and was no longer hot to the touch. I was a bit swollen on the side of my ribs and around the tissue expander, but nothing that made my nurse or doctor be overly concerned about. The skin within the targeted area now all looked like a dark suntan with spots of pale, new skin peaking its way out and I could finally start putting my arm all the way down!

By the time the weekend of my 1-week post-radiation mark was over, the only thing that I really had to battle was fatigue. Since I wasn’t able to put my arm down or wear a sports bra, working out towards the end of treatment just wasn’t happening. I was lucky if I could get a 30-minute walk in. I wasn’t able to combat how tired I got with my usual exercise routines like I did during chemo, so I was mentally & physically drained.

I’m now into my 2-week post-radiation milestone and I can already FEEL the difference in my body. I’m becoming a lot more comfortable and mobile again. I’m still a bit hesitant with doing my upper body weighted exercises, so I’m focusing on long walks, lower body strength, and lots and lots of stretching. Once all the peeling has subsided, I’ll resume my daily lymphatic massaging and getting to work on loosening up the scar tissue that is forming.

I cannot even begin to describe the feeling of how Week 3 is. It’s literally like night & day from being fresh out of treatment. My skin doesn’t even look like it went through radiation. The only way you can see the faint skin discoloration is if you really, really look close enough. Otherwise, at first glance, it just looks like well, ME! I do have to say though that the muscle tightness now is about as compared to when I woke up from my mastectomy. 

Despite my all-day every day stretching attempts, continuing to moisturize, and staying hydrated, I can’t seem to keep loose. I have to say though, I’d rather be tight than miserable in my own skin. I’m back to running (yeay!) now and even picked back up my weight training routines. Every night I do a bedtime yoga routine to ensure I maximize my stretching efforts, so hopefully, over the next few weeks, my muscles begin to remember how limber they once were.

If it weren’t for having a strong, knowledgeable support system around me I can only imagine what I could have looked like. I’m so thankful to have these people in my life and hopefully, this knowledge will help you in your radiation fight, cause no one should ever fight alone.