According to an article recently published in Cancer Nursing, aloe vera gel did not significantly reduce radiation-induced skin side effects in women undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

Breast cancer is diagnosed in over 200,000 women annually, resulting in approximately 40,000 deaths each year in the United States. Breast cancer may be localized, which means it has not spread from the site of origin, or it may be more advanced, existing outside the breast in other organs or lymph nodes. Surgery is often used as initial therapy for localized breast cancer and may be followed by additional therapy (called adjuvant therapy) which may include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, radiation therapy and/or biologic therapy. In some instances, lymphocele drainage is performed to empty a cyst formed in or around lymph nodes or diseased lymph channels.

Aloe vera is a succulent plant native to Africa. Its leaves are long, green and fleshy, containing a gel inside that has been used by herbalists for centuries to sooth dry and damaged skin. It has also been used historically to treat minor cuts and burns. Little research has been conducted to investigate the efficacy of aloe vera in a clinical trial context.

A Phase III study conducted in Australia investigated the effectiveness of aloe vera gel on irradiated breast tissue. In addition, the study also explored which patients were most likely to experience skin side effects from radiation. Two hundred twenty-five breast cancer patients who had undergone lumpectomy or partial mastectomy and were undergoing radiation therapy participated in the study. Patients were randomized to receive either aloe vera gel or an aqueous cream, each applied three times daily during treatment and for two weeks following treatment completion. Nurses evaluated and recorded skin conditions once a week.

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This trial reported that aqueous cream was significantly more effective than aloe vera gel at reducing dry, peeling skin and its accompanying pain. The data also suggested that women with breasts D cup or larger were significantly more likely to have erythema (skin redness) than women with smaller breasts, regardless of which treatment they used. Smokers who used aqueous cream were significantly more likely to experience itching than nonsmokers using it. Patients using aloe vera gel who had one or more lymphocele drainages after surgery were significantly more likely to experience erythema (skin redness) and itching than those who had not undergone any drainages and used aloe vera gel. Overall, patients undergoing lymphocele drainage that used aloe vera gel were significantly more likely to experience pain than those using aqueous cream. The is no clear explanation for these associations and further research is needed to clarify their implications.

These researchers concluded that aquaeous cream, but not aloe vera gel, appeared useful in reducing radiation-induced skin side effects in breast cancer patients. Patients with breast cancer may wish to speak with their physician about the risks and benefits of CAM or about participation in a clinical trial further evaluating CAM therapies.

Reference: Heggie S, Bryant Gp, Tripcony L, et al. A Phase III study on the efficacy of topical aloe vera gel on irradiated breast tissue.

Cancer Nursing. 2002;25:442-51.

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