Sun exposure among cancer patients is a common subject of concern. Many studies have explored the importance of sunlight for human health and well-being, observing how getting some sun greatly affects our mood and immunity. Yet, common cancer treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy make the skin more sensitive and susceptible to sun damage. Given such conflict, many cannot help but ask: Is sun exposure during and after treatment completely bad? How will this lack of sun exposure affect the recovery process of cancer patients?
Below is a roundup of everything you need to know about the topic.
How does Sunlight Affect our Health?
Generally, sunlight exposure is needed to improve our physical and mental health. Among the common benefits linked to sun exposure are the following:
- Vitamin D production
Vitamin D is often called the sunshine vitamin. Specifically, it is produced when the sun’s UVB photons penetrate the skin and trigger a photosynthetic reaction that creates the said vitamin.
Vitamin D has many functions in the body. It works to regulate and maintain high levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood by enhancing intestinal absorption of said nutrients. Both calcium and phosphorus are needed to keep our bones, muscles, and teeth strong and healthy.
Without enough vitamin D, a person may grow with bone deformities. Children, in particular, are at risk of developing rickets, while adults may experience osteomalacia or osteoporosis.
- Serotonin production
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, emotions, and even appetite. It is one of the four “happy hormones” that generally help alleviate anxiety and even trigger positive emotions, such as pleasure and joy.
In a 2002 study, researchers observed how exposure to UV rays affects people’s moods. They created two groups where one is exposed to UVA, while the other group is not. They observed that those who had UVA exposure had significantly higher serotonin serum. The exposed volunteers were also described to be less nervous and more satisfied.
- Sleep quality and wakefulness
Sunlight exposure also has a role in regulating the body’s circadian rhythms. Generally, humans have their own 24-hour internal clock. The brain receives signals from the senses to indicate when to sleep and time to wake up. Light, in particular, plays a vital role in this kind of body response. The retina can sense when light enters the eyes and send signals to the brain to keep the body awake and alert. On the other hand, when night falls, our body senses the lack of light and produces melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.
In one study, researchers observed that workers in windowless environments resulting in minimal to no daylight exposure experience poorer overall sleep quality. This indicates light exposure during the day can result in better and longer sleep duration.
How Do Cancer Treatments Affect Our Relation with the Sun?
Generally, not all cancer treatments result in sun sensitivity. However, common treatment options, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, cause the said side effect.
Specifically, the condition is called photosensitivity, when the skin becomes extremely sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or any other light source. Sunburn and other sun-related skin damage can quickly develop when this condition occurs. In some people, such forms of skin damage already arise even when exposed to the sun for only a short period of time.
Common symptoms of photosensitivity include redness, inflammation of the skin, rashes that may or may not itch, and even skin weeping, peeling, and severe blistering.
Chemo-induced photosensitivity may last for up to two months. The condition comes as a result of some specific drugs, such as dacarbazine, methotrexate, and vinblastine. Meanwhile, sun sensitivity as a result of radiotherapy may become permanent.
Should Cancer Patients TOTALLY Avoid Sun Exposure During and After Treatment?
The short answer is no. You don’t have to totally avoid the sun when undergoing cancer treatment. You may still enjoy the warmth of the day and the physical and mental benefits associated with the sunlight as you recover from your treatment. However, you will need to be extra careful and follow strict precautions to avoid complications.
To be more specific, you will need to:
- Apply sunscreen with at least SPF 30 or higher. This is an indispensable requirement, even when the weather seems cold or cloudy.
- Wear long-sleeves and hats that have long brims. A scarf is also needed if you’ve experienced hair loss due to your cancer treatment. This will protect your neck from the harsh sun rays. Pants are also necessary to protect your lower body. Be sure to choose clothes that are tightly woven. When fabrics are loosely stitched, sun rays can penetrate through them and directly affect your skin.
- Enjoy the early morning sunlight but avoid going out between 10 in the morning up to 4 in the afternoon. The sun is at its hottest during these times of the day.
- Wear sunglasses. Chemotherapy may also affect your eyes and influence how they react to light.
- Your lips aren’t exempted from the harsh rays. Use a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher.
- Always bring an umbrella with you.
- Stay under a shade if you want to stay outside for a more extended period.
- Stay hydrated. Drink water as much as possible.
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