Tips for Caring for Patients with Skin Cancer
March 22 2022
Treatment Options, Palliative Care and Post-Treatment Care
Skin cancer, like any cancer, can vary in severity. If caught early, it is often limited to the surface and may not require much treatment beyond an initial skin biopsy that removes the entire growth.
However, when skin cancer is more extensive, additional treatment and care will be required, particularly for malignant skin cancers.
Types of Treatments
Beyond a biopsy, other treatment options may include:
- Freezing: destroys actinic keratoses and some small, early skin cancers by freezing them. The dead tissue will slough off when it thaws
- Excisional Surgery: may be appropriate for any type of skin cancer and is when the doctor cuts out the cancerous tissue and a surrounding margin of healthy skin (a wider excision may be recommended in some cases)
- Mohs Surgery: a procedure for larger, recurring, or difficult-to-treat skin cancers and is used in areas where it’s necessary to conserve as much skin as possible, such as on the nose
- Radiation Therapy: is the use of high-powered energy beams to kill cancer cells and is used when surgery won’t completely remove the cancer
- Chemotherapy: is when drugs are used to kill cancer cells and in the case of skin cancer, will involve creams or lotions containing anti-cancer agents that are applied directly to the skin
- Photodynamic therapy: a treatment that combines laser light and drugs to make cancer cells sensitive to light, thereby destroying them
- Biological therapy: a therapy that utilizes the patient’s own immune system to kill cancer cells
After many of these procedures, there will need to be some follow-up care. For example, after skin cancer is cut from the skin, the patient will want to make sure that the wound is kept clean and heals properly. A care provider will be able to help the patient take the necessary steps in order to make a full recovery.
During more intensive treatments, such as radiation, chemotherapy, and photodynamic therapy, the patient may experience side effects, such as nausea and pain. This is when palliative care may become necessary in order to make the patient feel more comfortable during treatment.
What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care is comfort care. It is a treatment that focuses on ensuring the patient’s comfort. It is different from hospice care, which is end of life treatment. While hospice eliminates life-saving treatment and focuses solely on the patient’s comfort as they live out their final days, palliative care is comfort care that is received in conjunction with life-saving treatments. It can be used to help mitigate side effects from treatment. In other words, the goal of palliative care is to improve the patient’s quality of life during treatment for a serious illness.
Does Palliative Care Really Help?
Yes! Studies have shown that cancer patients who receive palliative care during treatment had:
- Higher scores for quality of life
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- A longer life
Studies have also found that family or friends caring for a loved one with cancer can benefit from palliative care. Having a support team of professionals can not only help them feel less stressed, but can help reduce caregiver burnout, especially when they take advantage of respite care.
Palliative Care for When Skin Cancer Spreads
Malignant cancer needs more intensive forms of treatment in order to beat the cancer, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy. Side effects from this stronger treatment cause patients discomfort, such as pain, nausea, and fatigue.
A palliative care team will include health care professionals and often other professionals, such as a psychologist, social worker, or chaplain. While the health care professionals will help manage symptoms such as pain, loss of appetite, or insomnia, the other professionals can help you deal with other issues that come with battling cancer, such as mental health concerns, spiritual needs, or even finding assistance with child care during treatment.
Palliative care may include:
- Medications to ease pain
- Medications to ease nausea, which can help improve appetite
- Medications or other assistance to aide in better sleep
- Caring for dry and irritated skin caused by radiation therapy
- Wound care of sores caused by treatment
- Mental health support
- Spiritual support
- Assistance with research and information, such as finding support groups
- Respite care for family caregivers
- Other care to treat symptoms of cancer treatments
Follow-up care is important and the patient should work with their healthcare provider post-treatment to ensure the cancer does not come back and to manage any long-term side effects.
Follow-up care will include:
- Watching for recurrence of the cancer
- Reconstructive surgery for more extensive surgical removals
- Dealing with scars that can be itchy, painful, or even limit mobility
- Long-term recovery or care which can include rehabilitation, physical therapy, counseling to deal with emotional needs, pain management, and nutritional therapy
- Watching for or dealing with a second cancer that may occur due to radiation therapy
Post procedure, skin cancer patients should also make some healthy lifestyle choices. It is important to protect the skin from further damage. Outdoor activities should be limited to before 10:00 a.m. and after 4:00 p.m. to avoid the most direct sunlight. When outdoors, the patient should also wear sunscreen and wear clothing that protects the skin, such as long sleeves, pants, and wide-brimmed hats that shade the face, neck, and chest.