Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell Overview

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Treating Skin Cancer - Basal and Squamous Cell TOPICS

Radiation therapy for basal and squamous cell skin cancers

Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. The radiation is focused from outside the body onto the skin tumor.

When radiation is used to treat cancers on the skin, it is often done with electron beam radiation. This type of treatment uses electrons, which do not go deeper than the skin. This helps limit the side effects in other parts of the body.

Radiation may be used as the main (primary) treatment instead of surgery if the tumor is very large, or if it is in an area that makes surgery hard to do. It might also be used for people who, because of poor health, cannot have surgery. In some cases, radiation can be used after surgery as additional (adjuvant) therapy to kill small groups of cancer cells that may not be seen during surgery. This lowers the risk of cancer coming back after surgery. Radiation may also be used to treat skin cancer that has spread to lymph nodes or other organs.

The treatment is much like getting an x-ray but is stronger. Each treatment is painless and lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – takes longer.

Side effects of radiation can include skin irritation, redness, dryness, and hair loss in the area being treated. With longer treatment, these side effects may get worse. After many years, new skin cancers may start in areas that had been treated with radiation. Because of this, radiation is not usually done to treat skin cancer in young people or in others who are at higher risk for new skin cancers.

To learn more about radiation treatment, please see our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 02/24/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2014