Living with Cancer

3 Ways Summer Affects People with Cancer

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

It’s well-known that cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can cause a host of side effects ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to hair loss. During the summer months when temperatures reach into the 80s and higher, the sun is full force and people spend much of their time outdoors, cancer patients face additional risks that may harm their health or intensify side effects of treatment.

Janell Wilcox, Pa-C, a certified physician assistant who works with cancer patients at Henry Ford Health System, talks about some of the unfortunate hazards cancer patients face during the summer and tips for how to enjoy this time of year while staying safe.

Hazard#1: Dehydration
One of the biggest risks cancer patients face during the warmer months is dehydration. During chemotherapy, the body enters a hypermetabolic state, which means hydration is key. Couple this with being outdoors in the hot sun and patients need to be extra aware of how much water they’re drinking.

“One of the side effects of chemotherapy is that patients lose an appetite for foods and liquids, so it makes it extra crucial to make sure you’re getting enough of both,” Wilcox says.

Wilcox recommends her patients who are undergoing treatment drink up to two liters of fluids per day. And if they’re spending time outdoors, even more than that is necessary.

Certain types of chemotherapy and other treatments affect the kidneys, so Wilcox says it’s also crucial to stay hydrated to avoid kidney damage. Other dangers of dehydration include decreased need to urinate, cracked lips and feeling weak, dizzy or fatigued. Dehydration can even cause heat stroke or worsen some of the symptoms of cancer treatment, such as vomiting, diarrhea and headache.

Hazard #2: Sunburn
Certain chemotherapies, radiation treatments and targeted therapies put patients at an increased risk for skin toxicity when exposed to the sun and UV rays.

“Radiation treatment itself can cause burns on the skin that look similar to sunburn, and going out into the sun can make these burns worse,” Wilcox says.

Wearing plenty of sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher, a wide-brimmed hat, and light colored, protectant clothing with long sleeves, and staying in the shade are all beneficial ways to protect yourself from harmful sun exposure.

Hazard #3: Infection
“Many of the chemotherapies used to treat cancer result in a decreased white blood cell count, which raises the risk of developing an infection,” Wilcox says.

From swimming in lakes to consuming foods that have been sitting outside, various summertime activities can cause infections and other sicknesses for cancer patients who already have a weakened immune system.

Planning ahead by bringing your own food and storing it properly, bring a comfortable lawn chair to sit in while loved ones swim can help keep you from getting sick.

And most importantly, listen to your body, Wilcox says. Undergoing cancer treatment takes tremendous strength, and overdoing it during a day spent on the lake can have lasting damage to your health.

If you find you’re not feeling right, or your symptoms are worse than normal, go to the doctor. Many times, intravenous fluids to hydrate the body are all patients need to feel better, Wilcox says. But in the event of an infection like food-borne illness or heat stroke caused by dehydration, medical professionals can get you the help you need to feel better.

For more information on cancer treatments, resources and more, visit henryford.com/cancer.

Janell Wilcox is a certified physician assistant who works with cancer patients at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.

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