A qualitative descriptive study of patients’ experiences of a radiation skin reaction associated with treatment for a head and neck cancer

Maurene McQuestion, Angela Cashell


The majority of patients receiving radiation therapy will experience a radiation skin reaction, ranging from mild erythema to severe moist desquamation. The anticipated skin reaction will vary by cancer diagnosis, dose of radiation, size of treatment field, and other treatment- and patient-related factors. Recently, research has dispelled long-held myths about avoiding skin care products prior to treatment, and the use of deodorant or antiperspirant during treatment for breast cancer and any potential for an increased skin dose with the use of skin care products. Patients no longer are restricted in using these products. Most of the research regarding skin reactions due to radiation has been conducted with women with breast cancer. No research has been found on the experience of a radiation skin reaction in patients with head and neck cancer (HNC), who often get the most severe skin reactions across all patient groups. Using the qualitative interpretive descriptive approach based on the methodological work by Thorne (1997), nine participants were interviewed about their experience of having a radiation skin reaction resulting from their treatment for HNC. Three themes emerged from the interviews, including 1) the symptom experience, 2) comparison to others, and 3) the experience of support and information. Implications include recommendations for practice and patient education.

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