Take Precautions During Cancer Treatment in Warmer Weather

Warm weather beckons most people to spend more time outdoors. But, whether you are on a much-needed vacation or just enjoying the summer months, if you or someone you love is living with cancer, heat, sun, and outside activities can present certain challenges. With planning and proper precautions, however, you can still enjoy outdoor fun on warm, sunny days.

Sun Exposure

Certain forms of chemotherapy can make patients more sensitive to the sun. A classic example is 5-fluorouracil, says Michael Naughton, MD, Assistant Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Even if you are not receiving this form of chemotherapy, though, you may more sensitive to the sun.

Planning ahead can make your time outdoors safer and more enjoyable:

  • Try to limit your sun exposure between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm, which is when the sun's rays are strongest.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and reapply it often, especially after sweating or swimming. It is also a good idea to ask a doctor to recommend a sunscreen for sensitive skin if your skin is irritated anywhere from radiation therapy.
  • Dress for sun protection, and bring portable shade such as an umbrella if possible.
  • Protect your head. If you've lost your hair due to chemo, wear a hat.
  • If you have undergone radiation, know the boundaries of where you were exposed. This area will be the most sensitive to sunburn, especially during the first year after treatment.
  • Keep any surgical scars covered from the sun. "Surgical scars may be especially sensitive to sun damage," says Dr. Naughton. If you can't keep them covered by clothes (or a hat), apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, generously and frequently.

Dr. Naughton also cautions, "Patients should also remember that clothes, especially light T-shirts, do not offer complete protection, and sunscreen should still be worn."

Summer and Entertaining

Picnics, pools, and parties are abundant during warmer weather. Picnics and other outdoor parties can be a great chance to visit with friends and family, but your body's reaction to treatments or medications may present challenges when you are not at your own home.

If you are going to an outdoor party or picnic:

  • Call ahead to make sure that shade is available, or bring your own, and stay in the shade as much as possible. Take breaks from the heat and seek air conditioning, especially if you start to feel overheated.
  • Wear lighter colors and fabrics and loosely fitting clothing.
  • Heat can cause or worsen hot flashes. Drink cold beverages and also seek shade and indoors when possible.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and avoid too much alcohol. Try drinking sports drinks like Gatorade or even Pedialyte to replenish your body's electrolytes.
  • Cancer patients may have changes in taste, as well as changes in digestion, says Dr. Naughton. Be prepared for problems such as acid reflux, nausea, and diarrhea by talking to your doctor about what you can do before the party.
  • Be careful of picnic fare. Terri Ades, RN, MS, ACON, Director of Cancer Information with the American Cancer Society, says specifically that low white cell counts from cancer treatment can make a person more susceptible to food-borne bacteria. Make sure food is well-chilled and not left out in the heat.
  • After swimming in a pool, wash off the chlorine right away so that it doesn't dry and irritate your skin.
  • If you have a low white blood cell count, you should avoid public pools and beaches to reduce your risk for infection from water-borne bacteria.

Indulging in warm-weather treats such as ice pops, watermelon, and lemonade can help you stay cool, but Dr. Naughton also says people with cancer, especially those who received more intense therapies, such as stem cell transplants, need to take precautions in terms of fresh fruits and raw vegetables. Because you are at higher risk for infection, fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly and all bruised or broken areas removed before eating. Fruits that grow on vines, such as grapes and berries, should be avoided because mold and bacteria can collect around the stem and cause infection.

Fatigue

Heat can worsen cancer-related fatigue. "Most patients with fatigue, despite the cause, will find symptoms more pronounced in extreme levels of heat," says Monique Williams, adult nurse practitioner at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor. She recommends several strategies to combat fatigue in warm weather:

  • Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. Keep fluids on-hand.
  • Eat small, frequent meals.
  • Listen to your body. Rest if you feel tired.
  • Try to stay in an air-conditioned space or limit the amount of time you are exposed to heat.
  • Dress appropriately in lightweight clothing.
  • If you have any symptoms such as muscle cramps, trouble breathing, confusion, fever, seizures, nausea, or vomiting, seek medical care immediately.
  • Exercise can help combat fatigue, but recognize your limits. You may not be up to the same strength and activity level that you were used to. Swimming is a good source of light exercise that will keep you cool, help reduce strain on joints, and soothe aching muscles.

How Cancer Patients Can Beat the Heat

If you are being treated for cancer, you are more vulnerable to heat-related problems than you were before treatment. Make every effort to stay cool, and understand that the combination of sunlight, heat, and medications may cause photosensitivity reactions to occur quickly, possibly more quickly than you expect. Being aware of your medications and having a plan in place in case of emergency, whether you are at home or are traveling, can make the warm weather most enjoyable.