Radiation Therapy for Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, but basal and squamous cell cancers are far more common. These two non-melanoma cancers together account for 96% of all cases of skin cancer. They’re less likely to spread throughout your body than melanoma, and they’re likely to be cured if they’re caught and treated early.

Most people have surgery to remove or kill these cancers. But you also may need additional treatments like radiation therapy.

What Is Radiation Therapy?

It kills cancer cells by aiming radiation waves directly at tumors. The radiation generally doesn’t go deeper than your skin -- the goal is to destroy as much of the cancer as possible without hurting the rest of your body.

Most often, the radiation is delivered by a machine. It’s a lot like getting an X-ray -- it doesn’t hurt and is fairly quick. But you may need to have several sessions.

Who Needs Radiation Therapy?

You may have radiation after surgery to kill cancer cells that might have been left behind.

It’s sometimes recommended as the only treatment for elderly people or those who have health conditions that make it dangerous for them to have surgery. Radiation also might be used instead of surgery if your tumor is very large or in a hard-to-treat area (like your eyelids or the tip of your nose) and the surgery might affect how you look.

But non-melanoma skin cancers treated only with radiation are more likely to come back than ones treated with surgery. And if you have certain other health issues, such as lupus or scleroderma, radiation therapy can sometimes make those conditions worse.

Side Effects

Radiation is targeted directly at the tumor, so side effects generally happen only in the area where you were treated. Your skin may change color, blister, or peel, as if you had a sunburn. Your hair also might fall out, and it may or may not grow back.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 22, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer.”

National Cancer Institute: “Skin Cancer Treatment: Patient Version.”

American Cancer Society: “How Does Radiation Therapy Work?”

UCLA Health: “Skin Cancer.”

Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology: “Superficial Radiation Therapy for the Treatment of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers.”

American Cancer Society: “Radiation Therapy for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers.”

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