Skincare Tips From A Breast Cancer Survivor

By Minji

In honor of breast cancer awareness month, I sat down again with my fabulous friend Susan to discuss her skincare and overall health journey.  Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2019. 

Thankfully she’s fully recovered and is glowing, vigorous and full of live as ever, but going through the experience of breast cancer has fundamentally changed her views on wellness and also impacted her daily holistic skincare routine

Dr. Yoon notes, in the case of breast cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy or related treatments, the barrier function that protects the skin can weaken, in addition to direct skin damage. Therefore, it’s important to apply a moisturizer that can strengthen the skin’s barrier more frequently than usual. 

Below is a summary of what we discussed. 

  1. What were the immediate changes to your skin due to breast cancer and the related treatments? 

After surgery, my Oncologist recommended a series of targeted radiation treatments over the breast and underarm area. The treatment was administered daily for three months, during which I experienced an extreme variation to my skin texture. My skin became darker in the exposed area and started to peel almost immediately, similar to a sunburn, and the area became more dry and sensitive. 

To deal with the burn and sensitivity, I used a silver ointment and made sure to keep the skin clean and dry. The skin also developed some rough patches that felt similar to scar tissue.  My doctor recommended applying a vitamin E concentrate daily that helped resolve the issue.

She also recommended drinking up to two liters of water each day to flush out the toxins from the radiation treatment.  Overall, there was a notable difference in the impact to my skin when I reduced citrus intake (limiting vitamin C) and increased the amount of water I consumed immediately following my radiation treatment. This was a suggestion from my Oncologist.

 A year following my treatment, I do not have any lasting effects to my skin tone or texture.  However, my skin in the treated area is still highly sensitive and can get irritated easily.  

  1. What is your detailed skincare routine these days?   

Although my skin has changed with my health issues and age, my skin care routine remains very basic.  I wash each night with a mild hydrating soap and exfoliate two times a week. I use an all-natural skin cream to remove my makeup and moisturize my face.  I apply my moisturizer by patting onto my skin and let it absorb naturally, which is a ritual I learned from my mother.  The only time I rub or scrub my face is when I exfoliate.  

I apply moisturizer immediately after washing my face, applying more heavily under the eye area.  People are always surprised that I do not use a separate eye cream.  

Since my radiation treatment, I am religious about applying moisturizer to my neck, chest and ears, which I previously neglected.  The two liters of water I drink each day helps to replenish hydration to the skin and body. 

  1. Are there any specific ingredients you try to avoid in your skincare products?

Once I was over the shock of my diagnosis, I took a deep dive into the “biology” of my breast cancer. I learned that my type of breast cancer was fueled by estrogen so I try to avoid any products that could stimulate the production of estrogen, such as soy based cleansers or moisturizers. I also do not use sugar based scrubs or exfoliates.

Early in my treatment, my Oncologist asked me to stop using deodorants or antiperspirants. The evidence is very clear that the ingredients found in most antiperspirants are not healthy for our body and may lead to cancer cell formation. 

In general, I started reading labels more carefully to know exactly what ingredients my products contained.  

  1. How has dealing with cancer impacted you in terms of exercise, diet or mindfulness?

It’s changed everything. I used to consider myself a generally healthy person, but I was not disciplined around diet, exercise and mindfulness.  Today, I am working hard to keep my stress levels down and develop consistency around my daily workout routine.  

A priority is to take my dog for a walk or hike everyday between 2-5 miles. Not only am I getting exercise, but spending time with my four-legged-friend helps keep me grounded and happy!  I also started a series of weight baring exercises to boost my strength and counter balance any bone density issues that can often be a side effect of my on-going cancer medication.

 Central to maintaining my inner strength and positive outlook is my daily meditation practice; quieting the mind and focusing on my body (even for a brief time) allows me to free myself from the fear and to nurture my body in a very fundamental way.  

Regarding my diet, I starting eating a calcium rich diet and take a vitamin D supplement to facilitate bone health. This is really important since I am avoiding products that stimulate the production of estrogen.

I start my day with celery juice and a kale/spinach/apple smoothie between 10-11am which fills me up until the afternoon and ensures that I am getting a healthy dose of essential minerals. On the recommendation of my doctor, I no longer drink coffee and have switched to natural green tea that I sip throughout the day.  My daily supplements also include a large dose of Omega 3 to help with healthy cell reproduction. 

  1. Any last tips or advice for other women who might be going though something similar? 

Honestly, I was surprised when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but the statistics say 1 in 8 women in the US will get breast cancer so why I was not better informed?  Fortunately, I found two amazing doctors who shared their wisdom and care. Here is what I learned:

  • Not all breast cancer is the same.  It is important to understand your type of cancer (and the specific cell markers) in order to advocate for yourself and explore all the relevant treatment options.  Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Cancer Book is essential reading for anyone with a breast cancer diagnosis.
  • Put yourself first, which is incredibly hard for mothers.  Fortunately, I have a wonderful partner who allowed me to focus on healing and take a step back from duties as primary caregiver.
  • Find something that inspires you and reach for it as a touchstone whenever you feel down. I made sure I had many inspiring books, podcasts and music to lift me daily.
  • Breathe! I remember a dear friend of mine telling me to exhale, which made me laugh. I realized that I was actually holding my breath while we were having lunch.  The good news is that we have so much new data and effective treatment for breast cancer today, and survival rates are increasing dramatically.