Breast Cancer: Understanding How the Summer and Heat can affect your body

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Ah, those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer…

    I don’t know about you, but while summer is often crazy and hazy, it’s seldom lazy! When you live in northern New England, as I do, summer is a treasured gift. Despite occasional peaks into the 90s – actually, more like WEEKS in the 90s this summer! – in general days are comfortably warm and dry, the kind of weather that makes you want to go for a bike ride, do some weeding in the garden, wash the car, walk to the library… anything to spend time outdoors.

    Still, being outdoors means exposing yourself to sun, wind, insects, germs… Most people deal with these aspects of outdoor life as a matter of course. But once you’re a survivor, even a simple mosquito bite – when it happens on the wrong arm – can have results that reach far beyond a simple itchy welt. 

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    So what do you do – hide in the house?

    No way! As always, knowledge is power. Check out the following survivor hints for a successful summer, then go out and enjoy yourself. As we well know, life can be short.

    Here comes the sun…

    Sunlight is a great natural source of vitamin D, which we all need. In particular, women taking Arimidex or another aromatase inhibitor may be subject to bone thinning, and vitamin D will help prevent that.

    But too much sun can be harmful, especially to survivors doing chemo. Many chemotherapy drugs are “radio-sensitizers,” which means they intensify the sun’s burning effect on your skin. And this effect can last up to 2 months after chemo is over.

    Ask your oncologist if your particular chemo comes with this sensitizing side effect. If so, you need to wear a hat, apply sunscreen (at least SPF 30), and be extra-careful to protect all exposed parts of your body from the sun, especially during the hottest part of the day – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

    Speaking of hats, if you’re currently without hair, make sure you wear a hat with a wide brim, or add a bandanna around your neck; many women forget that area at the base of the neck, which is usually protected by hair. It’s not just the top of your bald head that’s newly exposed – it’s your neck, too. So wrap up.

    Finally, if you’ll be doing radiation after chemo, be careful with any low-cut bathing suits or halter tops. It’s important that you not expose your breast area to direct sunlight, as “radiation recall” may increase your risk of radiation burns during treatment.

    Wind can be a challenge, too-

    Wind? How can wind hurt you? Well, think of it as a convection oven: convection ovens cook about 20% faster than normal ovens. So on a day that’s both hot and windy, you’ll become dehydrated much more quickly than you would on a hot day without wind.

    Adequate fluid intake is necessary for all of us, survivor or not; it keeps our skin and other organs healthy. But if you’re recovering from surgery, or undergoing chemo or radiation, your body is already stressed; it becomes doubly important that you remain sufficiently hydrated at all times.

    Drink healthy, and drink often. Water, weak fruit juices (homemade lemonade!), and zero-calorie water/fruit beverages do the job nicely, and won’t add unwanted pounds to your waistline. Alcoholic beverages aren’t hydrating; and soda (even diet soda) isn’t healthy, and could even be harmful. So try to avoid them.

  • In addition to dehydration, wind can wreak havoc on eyes already suffering from chemo or its after-effects. If you’re experiencing dry, burning, itchy eyes, wear sunglasses when it’s windy out – even on cloudy days. The glasses will help keep you teary-eyed… which is a good thing!

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    Beware increased lymphedema risks-

    If you’ve had radiation, or lymph nodes removed, you’re at risk for lymphedema. And summer increases those risks, simply because you’re outdoors more. Keep the following in mind:

    •Gardening: Wear gloves and long sleeves, at least on the affected arm/hand. Any cut, scratch, or puncture wound may take longer to heal, and could lead to an infection.

    •Protect yourself from insect bites. Ticks, mosquitoes, black flies, anything that bites carries germs. The affected side of your body is less able to fight infection; if you do get a bite, apply antibacterial cream.

    •Don’t overdo lifting or repetitive motions with your affected arm. Vigorous kayaking or canoeing; a long tennis match; 18 holes of golf; strenuous work (painting the garage, heavy gardening), can all strain your arm enough to bring on lymphedema.

    PLEASE don’t stop doing what you love; just be aware of your arm saying, “I’ve had enough,” and be smart enough to listen.

    •Sunburn: It’s always painful, but if you’re prone to lymphedema, a severe sunburn can be more than painful; it can lead to swelling, and an unwelcome round of lymphedema treatments. Be smart; cover up.

    And finally, a few quick tips-
    •Chemo may permanently change your tolerance for alcohol. Be aware that the 2 or 3 glasses of wine you used to be able to drink, without feeling fuzzy, may now be just a single glass. If you’re just getting back to social drinking post-treatment, pay attention to how much (or how little) it now takes to impair your judgment and driving ability. And plan accordingly.

    •Hot flashes/hot days. Oh, those menopausal moments! Be aware that heat and humidity may increase the number or severity of hot flashes you experience. It you’re in the midst of a particularly bad spell, try to stay someplace cool. You may need to put the gardening or house painting on hold till the weather cools down. 

    •Eat healthy! Summer food is such fun – ice cream, barbecue, beer… Be aware, if you’re newly menopausal, that your metabolism has slowed down. The calories you were able to consume last summer, without gaining weight, will now end up as fat on your hips or in your belly.

    Eat smart: choose fresh fruit or zero-calorie flavored waters when you crave sweets. Eat a handful of chips, not a bagful. It’s tough, no doubt about it. But it’s even tougher to try to shed those extra 15 pounds once you’ve put them on.

    So, now that you’re aware of the season’s potential risks, you’re to deal with them. So shut down your computer and get outdoors – summer awaits you!

Published On: July 23, 2010