Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. It works well for treating skin cancers.

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.

It works well for treating skin cancer. Radiotherapy is particularly useful in cases where surgery might be difficult or disfiguring, for example:

  • areas on the face (such as near the nose)
  • large areas
  • cancers that are deep in the skin.

However, radiotherapy is not recommended for young people, as it can cause skin changes which may become more visible over time.

Radiotherapy is occasionally used when a non-melanoma skin cancer has spread to other places. This can include lymph nodes or an organ such as the lungs.

Having radiotherapy for skin cancer

You have the treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. You may only have a single treatment, but usually several doses are needed. You have these each day over 1 or more weeks. Your doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.

Radiotherapy treatment affects only a small area of skin and will not make you feel unwell. The treated skin will be red and inflamed for up to a month after treatment. During this time, it will look as though the treatment has made things worse rather than better. This is normal. After a few more weeks, the area will dry up and form a crust or scab. In time, the scab will peel away, leaving healed skin underneath.

At first, this new skin will look pinker than the skin around it. This should gradually fade and the treated area will start to look like the skin around it, although it may be slightly paler. If you have dark skin, you might notice that the area gets darker.

Radiotherapy to areas where hair grows can make the hair fall out in the treated area. Your hair usually grows back in 6 to 12 months, depending on the dose of radiotherapy and how many sessions you have had. Some people find that the hair loss is permanent. You can talk to your clinical oncologist about whether your hair is likely to grow back after treatment.

Radiotherapy for skin cancer does not make you radioactive. This means it is safe for you to be around other people, including children, during your treatment.

We have more detailed information about radiotherapy.

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