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Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The treatment itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer.

Radiation is not often used to treat the main tumor on the skin. But it may be used on nearby lymph node areas after surgery to try to keep the cancer from coming back. It may also be used to treat cancer that has come back after surgery, either in the skin or lymph nodes if the cancer can’t all be removed by surgery.

Radiation can also be used to relieve symptoms of cancer that has spread, such as to the brain or the bones. Radiation used this way is not meant to cure the cancer, but it may help shrink or slow its growth for a time to control some of the symptoms.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

Side effects of radiation treatment depend on where it is aimed and can include:

  • Sunburn-like skin problems
  • Hair loss where the radiation enters the body
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

Often these go away after treatment.

Radiation to the brain can sometimes cause memory loss, headaches, trouble thinking, or reduced sexual desire. Usually these symptoms are minor compared with those caused by a tumor in the brain, but they can still affect your quality of life.

To learn more about radiation, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website or Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 05/01/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016