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Radiodermatitis, also known as radiation dermatitis or radiation burn, is something many cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy treatments will experience. According to the American Society for Radiation Oncology, nearly 75% of oncology patients are recommended to receive radiation therapy as part of curative or palliative care. Of those cancer patients who undergo radiation, 95% will experience some degree of radiation burn. Up to 87% of cancer patients will experience moderate to severe radiodermatitis during their treatments, or after radiotherapy treatments cease.
Fortunately, there are some key things you can do to minimize the damage from radiation therapy. This article will share with you four of the best and most healing substances from nature to keep radiation burn away, or at least keep the damage to a minimum.
What is the Goal of Radiotherapy?
The main goal of radiation treatment (radiotherapy) is to deliver a specific dose of radiation to the site of a cancer tumor and, in so doing, damage the DNA of cancer cells. This is meant to impair cancer cell growth and trigger tumor cell death. The other objective of radiotherapy is to keep damage to normal, healthy tissue to a minimum.
However, healthy cells in the radiation field are often damaged by radiation exposure, resulting in radiation dermatitis. Under normal circumstances, healthy tissues are quite capable of repairing themselves. But because radiation exposure is repeated over a long period of time, this compromises the ability of healthy tissues to repair before the next dose of radiation occurs.
Radiation Burn Symptoms
Radiodermatitis can be a painful condition, and it can occur up to 90 days after radiotherapy begins. For some, the discomfort can be excruciating. Researchers have discovered that even moderate radiodermatitis is associated with decreased quality of life. Moderate to severe radiodermatitis also often involves delaying or modifying radiotherapy treatments which could compromise the effectiveness of the treatment.
Symptoms of radiation burn can include:
- reddening of the skin (known as erythema)
- swelling and inflammation
- skin dryness and shedding
- itchy skin
- loss of hair in area being treated
- oozing and/or ulceration of skin
- blistering of skin
- fibrosis (thickening and scarring of connective tissue in skin)
- pigmentation changes
- necrosis (premature death of skin cells)
Here’s the part the radiation oncologist probably will NOT tell you… the effects of radiotherapy can occur anywhere from 90 days after completion of treatment to years after, as a direct result of permanent damage to the dermal layer of the skin.
The Problem With What Most Oncologists Recommend for Radiation Dermatitis
Most radiation oncologists and oncology nurses will have recommendations to ease the symptoms of radiodermatitis. Unfortunately, the products usually recommended are filled with toxic ingredients − the very ingredients that put us at a higher risk for cancer in the first place. For example, let’s examine a product called Biafine, the subject of a research study published in 2000.
- Purified water – Harmless.
- Liquid paraffin – Reasonably harmless but is derived from the petroleum industry.
- Ethylene glycol monostearate – A clear liquid used as an automotive anti-freeze, coolant, for de-icing, and in brake fluids; also in photographic development solutions. Considered a “moderate hazard” by the Environmental Working Group (“EWG”).
- Stearic acid – Considered a “low hazard” by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It comes from animal or vegetable fats. If animal derived, the fat is where toxins like pesticides the animal encountered in its lifetime are stored.
- Propylene glycol – A clear liquid used as an automotive anti-freeze, coolant, for de-icing, and in brake fluids; also in photographic development solutions. Considered a “moderate hazard” by the EWG.
- Paraffin wax – Reasonably harmless but is derived from the petroleum industry.
- Squalane – Generally derived from shark liver oil, potentially toxic due to increasing amounts of heavy metal contamination in our oceans.
- Avocado oil – Probably the only good ingredient here, other than water.
- Trolamine/sodium alginate – Commonly prescribed for wound repair. The Material Safety Data Sheet indicates it may cause irritation to eyes. For the skin, prolonged or repeated contact may dry skin and cause irritation. Inhaling it could cause chemical pneumonitis.
- Triethanolamine – A surfactant or pH adjuster, considered a “moderate hazard” by EWG, which lists it as a human skin toxicant or allergen, and a human immune and respiratory toxicant or allergen.
- Cetyl palmitate – A waxy oil derived from a sperm whale or from dolphins. See comment for squalene above.
- Methylparaben (sodium salt) – Used as a preservative and found in many deodorants, lotions, and skin care products, it is a known endocrine disruptor and estrogen mimicker (known as a xenoestrogen). Studies show that parabens can influence proliferation, migration, and invasive properties of human breast cancer cells. One researcher found parabens in 99 percent of human breast tissue samples. Parabens are definitely causing problems for our health.
- Sorbic acid (potassium salt) – An antimicrobial and preservative agent, these days it is usually created from synthetic compounds. EWG classifies it as a human skin toxicant or allergen.
- Propylparaben (sodium salt) – See info at methylparaben.
- Fragrance – Synthetic fragrances are known to cause problems for health. They are usually comprised of an undisclosed mixture of various chemicals known to be human immune system toxicants or allergens.
A Natural Protocol for Radiodermatitis
A great way to minimize the effects from radiotherapy is to protect the skin and give it some very particular nourishment. This can be done both prior to commencement of radiotherapy, as well as after each session. At the same time, it is important not to protect the tissues so much that it interferes with the radiotherapy goal of killing cancer cells.
Many radiation oncologists will not let you use anything on the skin while undergoing radiotherapy treatments − either before or after treatments. This is due to the fear that what you put on your skin may impede the radiotherapy. Putting nothing on the skin, however, can lead to unnecessary pain and suffering.
The following four things will in most cases protect you quite well from the majority of radiodermatitis symptoms and shouldn’t hamper the radiotherapy process (although always seek guidance from a qualified healthcare provider). Results are not guaranteed, of course, but if this protocol is followed rigorously, any symptoms should be minimal.
- Organic calendula officinalis extract. A 2004 French study compared calendula officinalis with trolamine (one of the ingredients listed in the Biafine above) for radiodermatitis. The researchers found the calendula to be better than the trolamine for the prevention of acute dermatitis in postoperative patients undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer. A 2006 Japanese study also revealed that calendula officinalis has anti-cancer properties. Doesn’t it make much more sense to use an ingredient with anti-cancer properties than something known to be toxic and to disrupt hormones?
- Organic aloe vera gel. The gel from the aloe vera plant has long been known for its burn healing properties, and it is a natural antiseptic. Native populations where the plant grows have used it for burns and wound healing for centuries. You can snap off one of the fleshy leaves of the plant and use the gel that oozes out, but it is much easier to use a commercially prepared organic aloe vera gel. Try to find one with 98-99% aloe vera gel and make sure it doesn’t have any harmful ingredients (which is why organic is recommended). In addition to its burn healing properties, 2016 Chinese research found that aloe vera polysaccharides induce autophagy (a self-degrading process for normal cells, absent or declining in cancer cells) in pancreatic carcinoma cells, both alone and together with radiation. Researchers stated that autophagic cell death “might be one of the mechanisms producing a radiosensitizing effect.” So it appears that aloe vera polysaccharides, in addition to healing burns, may also assist radiotherapy to do its job better.
- Organic lavender essential oil. Lavender essential oil is excellent for healing burns and wounds. It is known to have been used for this for a century, and probably much longer. During World War I, lavender was used to treat soldiers with burns in military hospitals. Lavender has natural anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain relieving), and anti-tumor properties.
- Organic coconut and/or hemp seed oil – Awesome for helping to heal burns, the fatty acids and antioxidants in coconut oil are also excellent for adding moisture and protection to the skin. 2008 Indian research confirms that coconut oil helped to heal partial thickness burn wounds in rats. Organic hemp seed oil is also amazing for skin and wound healing. It has over 540 different phytochemicals that give it anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-cancer, and neuroprotective properties. You can use coconut or hemp seed oil interchangeably.
How to Use These 4 Healing Substances
One to Two Weeks Prior to the Start of Radiotherapy Treatments:
Use the four items listed above, as described below in Method of Use. Do this once per day.
After Radiotherapy Commences:
ONLY AFTER each radiotherapy session, use the four items listed above, as described below in Method of Use. Do this twice daily but not within one hour prior to radiotherapy treatment. In other words, it is best done after the radiotherapy session is completed. If there is time, do it later in the day as well or just prior to going to bed. If your radiotherapy treatments are scheduled late in the day, do the protocol as soon as you get home, and then again next morning (after showering or bathing) but not within one hour prior to radiotherapy sessions.
After Radiotherapy Ceases:
Continue using the four items as described, once daily, for two weeks after cessation of radiotherapy treatments (and longer if you desire).
Method of Use:
- Apply Organic Calendula Extract. Using a cotton ball soaked with calendula extract, apply liberally to area. It will soak into the skin and should leave no residue.
- Next apply Organic Aloe Vera Gel: Apply a sufficient quantity of gel to saturate the tissue.
- Then apply Lavender Oil diluted with Coconut or Hemp Seed Oil. Once the aloe vera gel has soaked in, apply 1-2 drops of organic lavender essential oil, diluted in 1 teaspoonful of organic coconut or hemp seed oil.
The difference between using this protocol and not using it is quite remarkable. The author is a breast cancer coach and for those clients who followed this protocol before and after radiotherapy sessions, there has been little to no burning of breast tissue and no other side effects from radiation treatments aside from fatigue.
Damage to the heart and/or lungs is always possible when receiving radiotherapy and this protocol will not protect against that. Please ask your radiologist for information on how to protect your heart and lungs. For instance, for breast cancer you might be able to have the newer prone (breast dangling) style of radiotherapy. There is also a cardioprotective technique called deep inspiration breath hold (DIBH) for those with cancer in the left breast. The patient takes a deep breath while radiotherapy is being delivered and holds this breath. This fills the lungs with air and moves the heart farther away from the radiotherapy field.
4 Helpful Tips During Radiation Treatments for Cancer
- Make sure to use a mild, organic soap or shower gel when washing your body.
- Keep the irradiated area out of the sun while you are going through radiotherapy.
- Wear loose fitting clothing made from cotton or other natural fibers.
- Try to avoid chlorinated water whenever possible, both in swimming pools and in shower water.
Other Beneficial Essential Oils for Radiodermatitis
Any of the following essential oils may be beneficial for topical use while receiving radiation treatment. Dilute all of these first with a quality carrier oil such as hemp seed or coconut oil.
Frankincense – oxygenates tissue; helps to reduce any scarring
Helichrysum – helps to reduce scarring; excellent for cell regeneration
Tea tree oil – especially if skin has broken as it helps to kill any bacteria and reduce chance of infection; relieves pain
Roman Chamomile – anti-inflammatory, antiseptic
Peppermint – its cooling menthol and natural anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties will soothe burned skin tissues
Essential Oil Purity Matters
If you intend to use essential oils for health improvement, know how your essential oils are extracted and where they come from. You especially want to ensure that the plants utilized have not been sprayed with pesticides, or other harmful chemicals and are the highest quality essential oils available. It is best to avoid any essential oils from companies that do not advise how the plants for their oils are grown.
Distilling methods are important too. Some companies use harmful chemicals to extract the oils from plants, and rather than healing, these oils can be harmful to health. It pays to do a little homework on the company creating the oils you intend to buy.
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Radiodermatitis is something many cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy treatments will experience.
Of those cancer patients who undergo radiation, 95% will experience some degree of radiation burn.
Even moderate radiodermatitis is associated with decreased quality of life.
Symptoms of radiation burn can include:
- Reddening of the skin (known as erythema)
- Swelling and inflammation
- Skin dryness and shedding
- Itchy skin
- Loss of hair in area being treated
- Oozing and/or ulceration of skin
- Blistering of skin
- Pigmentation changes
4 things that may protect you from radiodermatitis symptoms:
- Organic calendula officinalis extract
- Organic aloe vera gel
- Organic lavender essential oil
- Organic coconut and/or hemp seed oil
Other beneficial essential oils for radiodermatitis:
- Tea tree oil
- Roman Chamomile