Types of skin problems with cancer

Cancer and its treatment can affect the skin in different ways, causing problems.


Some types of cancer produce substances that cause itching. Certain treatments used for cancer can also make you itchy. This can be very distressing. There are treatments and things you can do to help control it.


Some cancers, as well as cancer treatment such as hormone therapy Open a glossary item, can cause sweating. Sweating can be very troublesome and embarrassing. There are treatments and things you can do to help control it.

Pressure sores

Pressure sores are wounds that develop when the skin is damaged by constant pressure or friction. When you have cancer, you risk developing pressure sores if you can’t move around very well.

If your skin is very dry or sweaty, it is also more likely to get sore. But remember, there are things you can do to help prevent pressure sores.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines say that people at risk of developing pressure sores should have a special mattress. They also say that a health professional should do an assessment to help prevent pressure sores.

Treatment-related skin reactions

Some cancer treatments can cause problems with your skin. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned. You may need treatment with steroid or antibiotic creams or tablets.

Targeted drugs

Targeted cancer drugs Open a glossary item called EGFR inhibitors are most likely to cause skin reactions such as a rash and itching. The rash is often like acne.

Targeted cancer drugs called multikinase inhibitors can cause hand-foot skin reaction. This is different from hand-foot syndrome. The skin reaction includes a burning or tingling sensation, redness and large blisters.


Some chemotherapy drugs can make your skin dry and itchy or more sensitive to the sun. Other skin reactions include:

  • areas of previous radiotherapy becoming inflamed
  • darkening of the skin
  • nails becoming brittle

Hair loss is also a common skin change with some types of chemotherapy.

Hand-foot syndrome can cause:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • blistering on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet

Hormone therapy

Some types of hormone therapy can cause skin rashes that could be itchy. 


Radiotherapy can also cause skin problems. The effects vary from one person to another and depend on:

  • your skin type
  • the part of the body you are having treated
  • the amount of radiotherapy you have

The reaction can be mild, with just some reddening or darkening of your skin. Or it can be more severe and make the skin break down with blisters. Some people have itchy, flaky skin.

High-dose cancer treatments

High dose cancer treatments, such as bone marrow and stem cell transplants can cause graft versus host disease - called GvHD for short.

In GvHD the immune cells from your donor attack your body’s own cells. It can cause a number of different symptoms, including a skin rash, which can be itchy and painful. 

Ulcerating tumours

Some cancers can spread into the skin and develop into an ulcerating wound. This means the wound won’t heal. It is rare but happens mostly in breast and head and neck cancers.

Treatment may help the wound to heal. You might have:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • hormone therapy
  • targeted therapy
  • a combination of treatments

You may also have the wound covered (dressed). District nurses are experts in wound care and will assess and dress your wound at home. Or the practice nurse at your GP surgery can help if you can get to the surgery. They can also help with specific problems, such as wounds that smell, which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. There are specialised dressings which can help reduce this.


Lymphoedema is a build up of fluid in the tissues, which causes swelling. It is most likely to affect the arms and legs, but it can also happen in other body areas. The fluid buildup is due to lymph vessels getting blocked. This can happen when a tumour presses on them or following surgery to remove lymph nodes or radiotherapy to lymph nodes.

Lymphoedema can make your skin feel tight and uncomfortable. It can also make it dry and crack easily. It helps to keep your skin moisturised. When washing an area of the body with lymphoedema, ensure the skin is thoroughly dried by air drying or gently using a towel. Don't rub it dry, as the skin will likely be delicate.

It is important not to damage or injure the affected area. For example, don’t have blood taken from your arm if you have had treatment that increases your risk of lymphoedema or if you already have lymphoedema. You should also avoid getting sunburnt.

Skin cancer

This section is about the different ways cancer and treatment can affect your skin.

If you are looking for information specifically about skin cancer or melanoma skin cancer, this isn't the right section for you. 

  • Targeted Therapy- and Chemotherapy-Associated Skin Toxicities: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

    J Ding and others

    Oncology Nursing Forum, 2020 September. Volume 47, Issue 5, Pages: 149 to 160

  • Radiation induced skin reactions during and following radiotherapy: A systematic review of interventions

    G Burke and others

    Radiography (Lond), 2022 February. Volume 28, Issue 1, Pages: 232 to 239

  • Electronic Medicines Compendium (EMC)

    Accessed May 2023

  • Pressure ulcers: prevention and management

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), April 2014

  • Pruritus: Etiology and patient evaluation

    S Fazio and others

    UpToDate website

    Accessed May 2023

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
10 May 2023
Next review due: 
10 May 2026

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