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Doctors focus on treating nasty cancer side effects

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 Army meant he 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.

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

“It started as skin cancer and ended up as neck cancer,” Handy told Ivanhoe.

Handy had surgery, six chemo treatments and six full weeks of radiation. The treatments knocked cancer into remission, but then two horrible rashes appeared: one diagnosed as radiation dermatitis.

“It looks like acne, but it is utterly miserable.” Dr. Adam Friedman, director of Supportive Oncodermatology and professor and interim chair of dermatology at GW Cancer Center, explained.

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, letting him spend more quality time with his wife Marilyn and the people he loves most.

Friedman said some of the other common side effects they treat 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.