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Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (such as x-rays) or particles (such as photons, electrons, or protons) to kill cancer cells.

When is radiation therapy used?

If a tumor is very large or is on an area of the skin that makes it hard to remove with surgery, radiation therapy may be used as the main treatment. Radiation therapy can also be useful for some patients who, for other health reasons, can’t have surgery. Radiation therapy can often cure small basal or squamous cell skin cancers and can delay the growth of more advanced cancers.

Radiation is also useful when combined with other treatments. For example, radiation can be used after surgery as an adjuvant (additional) treatment to kill any small areas of remaining cancer cells that may not have been visible during surgery. This lowers the risk of cancer coming back after surgery. Radiation may also be used to help treat skin cancer that has spread to lymph nodes or other organs.

How is radiation therapy given?

When radiation therapy is used to treat skin cancers, the radiation is focused from outside the body onto the tumor. This is often done with a type of radiation called electron beam radiation. It uses a beam of electrons that don’t go any deeper than the skin. This helps limit the side effects to other organs and body tissues.

Getting radiation treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger and aimed more precisely at the cancer. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – takes longer.

Possible side effects of radiation

Side effects of radiation are usually limited to the area getting radiation, and can include:

  • Skin irritation, ranging from redness to blistering and peeling
  • Changes in skin color
  • Hair loss in the area being treated
  • Damage to saliva-making glands and teeth when treating cancers near these structures

With longer treatment, these side effects may get worse.

After many years, new skin cancers sometimes develop in areas previously treated by radiation. For this reason, radiation usually is not used to treat skin cancer in young people. Radiation is also not recommended for people with certain inherited conditions (such as basal cell nevus syndrome or xeroderma pigmentosum), who may be at higher risk for new cancers, or for people with connective tissue diseases (such as lupus or scleroderma), which radiation might make worse.

To learn more about radiation therapy, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website.

Last Medical Review: 04/01/2016
Last Revised: 05/10/2016