Itchy Skin and Cancer

Itchy skin is a common occurrence and a variety of factors and causes are responsible. Many are easily identifiable and treated with over the counter remedies, while others represent a much more serious cause.

Fluctuating humidity and weather conditions, skin disorders, autoimmune conditions and dry skin all cause itching, but some cancer and cancer treatments can also cause itching as a side effect. What cancers can cause itchy skin?

Itchy Skin and Cancer

Several malignancies and cancers result in itching. Read the symptoms below and form a plan with your healthcare provider to address the condition.

Possible cancers that can lead to itchy skin:

1. Leukemia

This group of cancers affects the bone marrow and blood cell production. Multiple subtypes exist and are classified based on which cell type is most affected. Itchy skin can be caused as a result of the cancer or as a side effect of the drugs used to treat the cancer.

Common over the counter creams, lotions and medications are effective at alleviating the itching. Hydrocortisone, calamine or any of the anti-itch skin creams provide relief. Others may find benefit in using an antihistamine such as benadryl. Be sure to check with your doctor before adding oral medications.

2. Lymphoma

This cancer affects lymphocytes predominantly. Lymphocytes are a specific type of white blood cell that circulates in the body and helps to fight infections. These cells circulate through the lymphatic system and work hard to keep us healthy by fighting disease and infection. According to Cancer Compass, lymphoma accounts for about 5% of all cancers in the United States. Hodgkin's disease is most well known, but non-Hodgkin's lymphoma also causes similar symptoms including itchy skin.

Other common symptoms include fatigue and swelling of lymph nodes due to uncontrolled proliferation of lymphocyte cells. Similar to leukemia, lymphoma itself or due to treatment can result in itchy skin.

3. Melanoma

Melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers in terms of numbers of new cases. Tanning bed use has clearly been linked to the increased number of new cases reported every year. Melanoma can spread or metastasize to other parts of the body including the brain.

New skin growths should generally be evaluated by a health care professional. Moles that are changing in appearance can signify a problem and deserve a closer look. Don't put this off as your life could depend on it. Use these guidelines to help determine when a mole is worrisome:

  • Asymmetry. Both sides of a mole should look identical if an imaginary line is drawn down the middle. Irregularly shaped lesions and moles require an expert evaluation
  • Border. If the edges of a mole are jagged, irregular or indistinct, seek evaluation by a professional
  • Color. Multiple colors of different shades is considered abnormal.
  • Diameter. Moles larger than a pencil eraser (6 mm) are considered abnormal and are at increased risk for cancer.
  • Evolution. Benign or non-cancerous moles are generally stable in appearance. Moles that are growing in size, change in contour or elevation deserve further inspection by a health care professional.

The bottom line is that whenever you have a concern about the appearance of an existing or new skin lesion or mole, seek a medical opinion and do not delay. Melanoma can spread and become deadly.

4. Skin cancer

Skin cancers are responsible for a variety of changes in the skin. Common findings include new bumps, growths, scaly lesions and sores. Itching sometimes occurs as a result of these skin cancers. Skin cancers are more likely to bleed than itch according to experts. Three common types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma (BCC), melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) can likely cause itchy skin.

Avoiding excessive sun exposure is the best way to avoid skin cancer according to health professionals. The most dangerous time is between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as that is when the sun is directly overhead and the UV rays are at their peak. Sunblock of SPF 30 or more is a good way to protect the skin from the damaging effects of the sun and minimize the risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Tanning beds accelerate the skin damage due to high doses of UV radiation. Many states have enacted laws prohibiting tanning bed use for those under the age of 18.

Detection and Treatments

Detection

Like most illness and disease conditions, early detection and early treatment have the most significant impact on outcome. Detecting and treating a skin cancer early most often is curative. It is important to realize that crusty areas of skin, particularly in sun-exposed areas, often represent precancerous changes in the skin.

Treatments

Treatment and removal can prevent skin cancer from developing and spreading. Abnormal moles can be excised or removed with a skin punch. The physician then closes the area with a stitch or two. The normal procedure is to remove a margin of a few millimeters on either side of the mole to eliminate any stray cancer cells. Once a skin cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, the treatment becomes more complex. A surgeon will remove any lymph nodes affected by the cancer and this is followed with radiation treatment to the area. Drug therapy (chemotherapy) is often needed to further eliminate any remaining cancer cells. If the cancer is too advanced and surgery is not an option, chemotherapy and radiation can be used to treat the cancer and improve symptoms.

When to See a Doctor

Besides the abnormal moles mentioned before, the following provides information on when to see your doctor:

  • When itching lasts more than two weeks
  • When itching does not respond to common sense treatments and creams
  • If any signs such as fatigue, weight loss, skin changes or swollen glands occur
  • If itching affects the entire body or the cause cannot be explained