You’ve completed skin cancer treatment – now what?
If you are one of the 3.3 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) each year, or one of the 186,680 people diagnosed with melanoma in 2023, completing skin cancer treatment can cause a mix of emotions – joy and excitement, but also concern about the cancer returning or a new cancer developing. These feelings are perfectly natural, and there are strategies you can put in place to help reduce your risk of recurrence or subsequent skin cancers, as well as to help reduce anxiety.
Once you have completed treatment, you will have follow-up appointments with your skin care provider, who could be your dermatologist, surgeon and/or radiation oncologist. Most likely, your physician will want to meet with you more frequently right after treatment, and if there are no concerns or recurrences, will likely extend the time between visits as time passes.
During these appointments, your provider will address any lingering side effects you may have from treatment, answer any questions you have and perform skin checks.
Practice prevention strategies
If you have already been diagnosed and treated for skin cancer, you remain at higher risk of developing a second skin cancer. In fact:
- People who have been diagnosed with melanoma are eight times more likely to develop another melanoma than those that have never been diagnosed with the disease.
- Up to 50% of people who have been diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma, a form of NMSC, will develop another skin cancer within 5 years.
- People who are fair-skinned, with blonde hair and/or blue eyes, or live below the equator where the sun’s rays are more intense, are at high risk for developing skin cancer.
Sun exposure, especially sunburn, is the number one risk factor in developing a first, or subsequent skin cancer. It is important that you are consistent in protecting your skin. Prevention methods include:
Avoid tanning beds
Tanning beds use ultraviolet (UV) light that frequently leads to sunburn and causes significant damage to the skin. Each sunburn you get increases your risk of developing another skin cancer.
Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Your care team might recommend a higher SPF depending on your situation, so be sure to ask them what is most appropriate for you. And be sure to reapply regularly, including after activities in the water.
Seek shade and wear protective clothing
Seek shade to help reduce your exposure to the sun. Wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, long-sleeves and pants can help prevent your chances of developing another skin cancer. While long clothing may not sound ideal if you live in a sunny climate, there are plenty of lightweight options that can still help keep your skin safe from the sun. Many clothing lines now offer items with SPF protection.
Perform regular skin checks
Contact your doctor right away if you notice any changes in your skin including:
- A mole with irregular borders
- Sudden tenderness, itchiness, or pain
- Bleeding or oozing
- A smooth lump with a pearly appearance
- A sore that doesn’t heal normally
- A noticeable, fast-growing spot
Be kind to yourself
Being diagnosed with and receiving treatment for cancer, no matter the type, can be stressful. It’s important to find ways to support yourself emotionally and reduce anxiety.
While each person will find comfort in different ways, you may want to consider:
- Attending a skin cancer support group or online community
- Gardening, journaling, yoga, meditation or movement therapy
- Treating yourself to an evening out with friends or loved ones to celebrate completing treatment
- Massage therapy or acupuncture (be sure to consult with your care team before participating in these activities and avoid any direct contact with recently treated area)
- Asking for help from friends, family or a mental health provider if you are struggling to cope
If you finished treatment for skin cancer a while ago and haven’t been actively practicing prevention strategies, don’t worry. It’s never too late to get into these habits. Regardless of when you start, if you receive another skin cancer diagnosis, don’t panic. Remember to breathe, be kind to yourself and talk to your doctor. Your care team will help you determine the best course of action and treatment plan.
This blog post was reviewed for clinical accuracy by Paul Wallner, DO, Radiation Oncologist. It was last updated on May 22, 2023.