Supportive oncodermatology

13/6/2017 12:00:00 πμ

Supportive oncodermatology

Anti-cancer therapy reactions call for customized knowledge and care

As cancer treatments have become more specialized so, too, have the reactions and side effects to those treatments. Dermatologic reactions can pose a special burden, potentially compromising therapy and affecting a patient’s overall quality of life at a time already full of challenges – physical, mental, and emotional.

Supportive oncodermatology was first described as a subspecialty in 2011 with a mission to identify and manage dermatologic symptoms that occur during anticancer therapy and, by doing so, improve the patient’s quality of life so he may continue to receive needed treatments without interruption.

Derm challenges of anticancer treatments

Dermatologic effects of radiotherapy have been reported since the late 19th century and, despite strategies to address them, they remain difficult to manage. High percentages of patients with breast and with head and neck cancers suffer from mucositis and acute radiation dermatitis, and edema, ulceration, necrosis and other symptoms, being particularly visible, may pose social hardships on patients. 

Dermatologic side effects from the use of chemotherapy agents have been a burden on patients for decades. Chemotherapy-induced alopecia (CIA) in particular, is a common and highly disturbing side effect for patients, especially women. Oral mucositis can affect a patient’s ability to eat and may require hospitalization or placement of a feeding tube to manage. Erythema, edema and pain over the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet (aka palmar plantar erythrodysesthesia, or hand-foot syndrome - HFS) or nail alterations from simple (such as hyperpigmentation, leukonychia, or onycholysis) to severe (subungual hemorrhage or abscesses) can affect a patient’s ability to perform the simplest of tasks.

Targeted therapies have become more popular in the treatment of cancers and side effects related to their use are being observed and defined. Epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors (EGFRIs) can be responsible for an acne-like skin reaction over the face, scalp, back and chest in up to 90% of patients, leading to a corresponding risk of secondary infections. Patients may also develop hand-foot skin reaction (HFSR), and nail alterations are also associated with targeted therapies as they are with chemotherapies.

Immunotherapy was originally approved for use in the treatment of melanoma but is now being used to treat other types of cancers and advanced metastatic disease. Side effects, as yet, are not well described.

“Because there are so many new treatments, we need to really understand these agents, see and study the reactions to discover what skin issues are developing and how we can best manage them,” says Dr. Kwong. “We try to take the time and effort to understand, on a molecular and mechanistic level, what is going on in the skin.


Patients present with different kinds of cancer and different anti-cancer therapies, so treatments for dermatologic complications must be just as personalized. Therapies for skin reactions may include topicals, cooling, or even systemic agents, depending on the extent of the patient’s dermatologic problems. 


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