9 Tips for Surviving Breast Cancer Treatment This Summer

by Megan McMorris Health Writer

There’s no good time to go through breast cancer treatment but doing so during the summer can seem like especially lousy timing. Actually, though, there are a few positives about summertime treatment. “At first I thought it was going to take away my summer, but I ended up feeling it was nicer to go through treatment in the warmer, brighter months,” says breast cancer survivor Melanie Young, author of Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor’s Guide to Staying Fearless & Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer. Still, summer raises a unique set of challenges for breast cancer. From fashion to weather, keep these considerations in mind.

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Protect Your Skin

You always wear sunscreen during the summer months anyway (right?), but sun protection is especially important when you’re going through cancer treatment. “Your skin will become more sensitive no matter what type of treatment you have,” says Young. And don’t be surprised if the reaction to sunlight lasts long after treatment ends. “Ten years later, I still have increased sun sensitivity, which is why I always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen and a hat,” she says.

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Stay Hydrated

If you’re going through cancer treatment during the summer, pay close attention to how much you’re drinking—your hydration needs may double because one of the side effects of chemo itself is dehydration, says Jane Méndez, M.D., a surgical oncologist at the Miami Cancer Institute. “This effect is only accentuated in the hotter months, when your body may already be dehydrated,” she says. Aim for 64-96 ounces per day—and even more if you play outdoor sports or are super-active.

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Eat the Rainbow

A diet filled with berries and melons is good for anyone—cancer or not—but it can provide an additional benefit if you’re going through chemo or other breast cancer treatments. “Sorbets and fruits are hydrating and soothing, and they can also ease nausea,” says Young. “Summer is such a great time to take advantage of fresh food. I would always have cut-up fresh fruit on ice ready—it’s one of the perks of the season.”

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Skip the Swim

Bummer, but true: If you’ve recently had breast cancer surgery, you’re better off on a chaise beneath a tree than in the water. “I advise my patients to stay out of the water for four to six weeks after treatment,” says Dr. Méndez. “You never know what’s in the water that could infect your wound.” Sun can also irritate your healing skin and cause the scar to darken, so keep it covered. “I advise my patients to put zinc oxide on their scars to prevent hyperpigmentation, especially during the summer,” she adds.

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Consider Different Wigs

“When I went through treatment, I had two wigs—what I called my sporty wig and my Rolls Royce wig,” says Young. “My sporty wig was synthetic, and I could just wash and wear it. My Rolls Royce wig was my expensive one that I didn’t want to wear when I was sweating.” Summer months are also a good time to experiment with non-wig choices. “There are so many options, from baseball caps with ponytails coming out of them to fun head coverings,” says Young.

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Be Wary of Bug Bites

If you’ve had surgery where your lymph nodes were removed, you’re more susceptible to lymphedema, a condition that can cause serious swelling in the arms and legs. Lymphedema can be exacerbated by the slightest irritant, so steer clear of mosquito-infested areas and ask your doc about bug sprays that are safe to use during treatment. “I smell like citronella all summer, because I’m always aware of bug bites,” says Young. If you start to swell up, immediately visit a doctor.

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Walk It Off

On the downside, treatment for breast cancer can make you more susceptible to sunburns and negative reactions to the heat. But on a positive note, the vitamin D you get from the sun may offset some of the bone weakening tied to certain breast cancer medications. Plus, it’s easier to exercise in nice weather and that’s good for your mental health, too. “It was very important for me to continue taking walks during my treatment, in order to keep my energy and mood up,” says Young.

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Suit Up With Confidence

Whether or not you looked forward to swimsuit season before breast cancer, dealing with it post-surgery can add a new layer of discomfort—mentally and physically. The right suit can make a big difference, and several companies design swimwear with higher necks and armholes to cover scars, padding for those who want it, and pockets for prosthetic support, so you can feel good about yourself (which you should—you are winning the battle against breast cancer, for Pete’s sake!).

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Enjoy the Season

Between doctor appointments and surgery recovery, it can feel like breast cancer is taking over your life. It’s up to you to flip the script—and appreciating summery moments, like a walk on the beach or backyard BBQ, is a good place to start. “Attitude plays such an important part in treatment,” says Dr. Méndez. “In the summer, nicer weather means people tend to have a better mood, which can improve your whole approach to treatment.” So slip on a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt, wear a hat, and rub in the sunscreen—then go ahead and enjoy yourself.

Meet Our Writer
Megan McMorris