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Radiotherapy for melanoma

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You may have radiotherapy for advanced melanoma, to shrink melanoma tumours and help control symptoms. Some people have it as a treatment after surgery, to try to lower the chance of the melanoma coming back but this is not common.

Having radiotherapy

You usually have treatment once a day from Monday to Friday, with a rest over the weekend. This may go on for several weeks. For advanced cancer, the course of radiotherapy may be shorter.

Radiotherapy is carefully planned. On your first visit, you lie under a specialised CT scanning machine. The doctor uses the machine to work out exactly where to give the treatment. They will make ink marks on your skin. These marks will be used to line up the radiotherapy machine every day when you have treatment.

The actual treatment only takes a few minutes. You will not be able to feel it. This type of radiotherapy does not make you radioactive.

Side effects

The side effects will vary depending on where in the body you are having treatment. Radiotherapy just to the skin does not have very many side effects. The skin may become slightly red and sore. 

 

CR PDF Icon View and print the quick guide for Treating advanced melanoma.

 

 

What radiotherapy is and why you may have it

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You may have radiotherapy for advanced melanoma to shrink melanoma tumours and help to control symptoms. Some people have it as a treatment after surgery to remove the melanoma, to try to lower the chance of the melanoma coming back but this is not common. 

 

How you have radiotherapy

You have radiotherapy treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. For advanced melanoma you may have a single treatment or a few treatments. For radiotherapy after surgery you may have a course of 5 treatments a week for a number of weeks. You usually have the treatment once a day from Monday to Friday with a rest over the weekend. The amount of treatment you have depends on

  • Whether you are also having other types of cancer treatment
  • The part of the body being treated
 

Planning your treatment

Before you begin your treatment, the radiotherapy team carefully plan your external beam radiotherapy. This means working out how much radiation you need to treat the cancer and exactly where you need it. Your planning appointment may take from 15 minutes up to a couple of hours. You will have a planning CT scan. The scan shows the cancer and the structures around it.

The 360° photo is of a CT scanner. You can use the arrows to look around the room.

You lie on the scanner couch with the treatment area exposed. The radiographers will put some markers on your skin. You need to lie very still. Once you are in position the radiographers move the couch up and through the scanner. The scanner is a doughnut shape. The radiographers leave the room and the scan starts. It takes up to 5 minutes. You won't feel anything. The radiographers watch from the next door room.

Ink marks

Once the treatment team has planned your radiotherapy, they may put ink marks on your skin to make sure they treat exactly the same area every day. They may also make pin point sized tattoo marks in these areas. 

We have information about radiotherapy skin markings.

Moulds or masks

If you are having treatment to your head or neck, you may need to have a mould (shell) made to keep you perfectly still while you have treatment. You may also have a mould if you have to keep an arm or leg perfectly still. 

We have information about making radiotherapy moulds.

After your planning session

You may have to wait a few days or up to 2 weeks before you start treatment. During this time the physicists and your radiotherapy doctor decide the final details of your plan. Your doctor will plan the areas that need treatment and outline areas to limit the dose to or avoid completely. They call this contouring. Then the physicists and staff called dosimetrists plan the treatment very precisely using advanced computers.

 

Having radiotherapy

Radiotherapy machines are very big. The machine may be fixed in one position or able to rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. Before your first treatment your radiographers will explain what you will see and hear. The treatment rooms usually have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music.

You can't feel radiotherapy when you actually have the treatment. It takes anything from 1 minute to several minutes. It is important to lie in the same position each time, so the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room for a few minutes. They watch you carefully through a window or on a closed circuit television screen. They may ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths during the treatment.

Our page about having external radiotherapy has a video about having radiotherapy that you may want to watch.

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe to be with other people, including children, throughout your course of treatment.

 

Side effects

The side effects vary depending on which part of your body is treated. Look at the radiotherapy section for information about radiotherapy and its side effects. Radiotherapy just to the skin does not have very many side effects. The skin may become slightly red and sore during the treatment period, like a mild to moderate sun burn. This begins to disappear a week or two after the treatment is over. 

If you have radiotherapy to a part of the body which has hair, you will have some hair loss. The hair will start to grow back some time after treatment has finished. But the regrowth may be patchy.

 

More information about radiotherapy

Look at the radiotherapy section for general information about life during radiotherapy.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. 

Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 29 September 2014