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Sunnier days ahead: sun protection after breast cancer treatment

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Image of a late-middle aged woman smiling, wearing a sun hat on the beach

With summer in full swing, it’s more important than ever to keep sun health in mind, especially during sun protection after breast cancer treatment. This season, we’re offering tips to help you stay safe in the sun while still making the most of all the warm weather has to offer.

Shielding your skin from the sun’s harmful rays is always important, but it becomes even more crucial during breast cancer treatment. This is because certain types of treatments including chemotherapy and immunotherapies can increase a patient’s photosensitivity––or sensitivity to sunlight––and cause them to burn more easily.

Research has also shown that, unfortunately, women who have had breast cancer are at an increased risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. A previous study found that breast cancer survivors age 50 or younger had a 46% increased risk of being diagnosed with melanoma later in life. This increased risk of melanoma makes it even more important for breast cancer patients and survivors to prioritize skin health in the sun.

Here’s how to best protect your sensitive skin:

Wear sunscreen

  • Sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher offers the most protection, and broad-spectrum sunscreen protects your skin from two types of harmful sun rays: UVA (the cause of skin aging) and UVB (the cause of sunburns). At least 2 tablespoons of sunscreen should be applied to your whole body 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow for adequate absorption, and be reapplied at least every 2 hours or after contact with water.
  • Breast cancer patients who have undergone surgery such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy should be mindful of their scars in the sun, as sun exposure can change the appearance of scars.

Keep yourself covered

  • Covering up with protective clothing is another helpful strategy for safely enjoying the sun. Wide-brim hats help protect your face, neck, and scalp––which is especially important if you’ve experienced hair loss or thinning due to cancer treatment. Sun shirts provide an extra barrier to the sun and long-sleeve, dark colored shirts are the most effective.
  • Breast cancer treatments can cause changes to the skin that make it extra sensitive to the sun, requiring more protection. Lymphedema, for example, is a potential side effect of breast cancer surgery or radiation therapy and can cause swelling, tightness, and dryness of the skin. Keeping these areas shielded from the sun, moisturized, and managing related symptoms with compression garments can be helpful. You should also be mindful of protecting burns from radiotherapy from the sun.

Avoid the sun when you can

  • Staying out of the midday sun (between 10am and 4pm) when the sun’s rays are at their strongest can help reduce harmful UV effects; when you do find yourself out during these peak hours, seek shade when possible. If shade isn’t easily available, bringing an umbrella, tent, or shaded chair to the beach is always helpful, and hand-held umbrellas can protect from more than just the rain on your walks.
  • For breast cancer patients, the sun can amplify the discomfort of some treatment side effects. For instance, medically-induced menopause from hormone therapies can cause hot flashes that are even more uncomfortable in the warm weather. Be sure to drink plenty of water, and stay cool with a personal fan or by wearing loose-fitting, cotton or bamboo clothes.

Practicing sun safety is essential, but using products that are safe for your skin and suitable to your lifestyle is equally important. Here are some mission-driven brands working to provide safe sun-protection options for cancer patients and anyone else looking for sun care alternatives:

  • She CANcer is a line of sun shirts created by Florida resident and breast cancer survivor Maria to bring chemical-free sun protection to breast cancer patients so they can continue doing what they love in the sun. For every sun shirt sold, She CANcer donates 10% of the proceeds to giving sun protection to patients in need.
  • Suntegrity Skincare was founded by Tricia Trimble–whose mother passed away from skin cancer–to bring safe, mineral-based sunscreen to everyone. Instead of using toxic UV filters that are found in some other products, this sunscreen uses zinc oxide to provide broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection.
  • Paris Laundry is another brand on a mission to provide safe, natural skincare options. Founded by Kelsey Bucci, a young breast cancer survivor, Paris Laundry offers a line of sun care products that are free of harsh chemicals.

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