Treating nasty cancer side effects

Life-saving treatments sometimes come with cost

WASHINGTON – Overall, cancer deaths in the United States have gone down for the past two decades, thanks in part to immunotherapy and specialized therapies.

But those life-saving treatments sometimes come with a cost.

At 78, George Handy still does the landscaping at his suburban D.C. home. Yardwork and 25 years in the U.S. Army meant Handy was outdoors in the sun for hours on end.

"I'm fair-skinned. I grew up in a time when nobody really worried about skin damage," Handy said.

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But in July of 2018, unusual changes to his scalp took a life-threatening turn.

"It started as skin cancer and ended up as neck cancer," Handy said.

Handy had surgery, six chemo treatments, and six full weeks of radiation. The treatments knocked cancer into remission, but then he got two horrible rashes. One of the rashes was diagnosed as radiation dermatitis.

"(It) looks like acne, but it is utterly miserable," said Dr. Adam Friedman, a dermatologist and director of supportive oncodermatology at George Washington Cancer Center.

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Friedman is one of a handful of U.S. experts practicing supportive oncodermatology dermatologists who treat the skin-related side effects of cancer treatments, like targeted therapies.

“Very often, doctors will stop or lower treatment courses because of these skin side effects, so if I can prevent that and get a patient through their course to treat, and possibly cure their cancer, that is of utmost importance,” Friedman said.

In Handy's case, Friedman prescribed a medication and topical cream for the rash.

Friedman said some of the other common side effects he treats include infections, severely dry and itchy skin, brittle or lost nails and changes to hair.

In addition to GW Cancer Center, Friedman said there are about 10 other major medical centers offering supportive oncodermatology.