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Radiotherapy treatment

Read about external radiotherapy for melanoma skin cancer.

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer cells.

Why you have radiotherapy

You might have radiotherapy to shrink advanced melanoma and help to control symptoms. 

For stage 3B or 3C melanoma, your doctor might offer you radiotherapy after surgery to remove your lymph nodes.

Radiotherapy can sometimes reduce the chance of cancer coming back in the area where the lymph nodes were. But radiotherapy can cause side effects. And it doesn't change the risk of the melanoma spreading to other parts of the body such as the organs. So doctors carefully weigh up the benefits of giving radiotherapy against the side effects. They will discuss all the possible risks and benefits with you.

How you have radiotherapy

You have radiotherapy treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department.

For advanced melanoma you might have a single treatment or a few treatments. For radiotherapy after surgery you might 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

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big. They rotate around you to give you your treatment. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

Before you start your course of treatment your radiographers explain what you will see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in your music player. So you can listen to your own music.

Photo of a linear accelerator

During the treatment

You need to lie very still on your back. Your radiographers might take images (x-rays or scans) before your treatment to make sure that you're in the right position. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You won’t feel anything when you have the treatment.

Your radiographers can see and hear you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They can talk to you over an intercom and might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. You can also talk to them through the intercom or raise your hand if you need to stop or if you're uncomfortable.

You won't be radioactive

This type of radiotherapy won't make you radioactive. It's safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

Tell the radiotherapy department if you prefer treatment at a particular time of day. They can try to arrange this.

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. It’s worth asking the radiotherapy unit staff:

  • if they can give you a hospital parking permit
  • about discounted parking rates
  • where you can get help with travel fares
  • for tips on free places to park nearby

If you have no other way to get to the hospital, the radiotherapy staff might be able to arrange hospital transport for you. But it might not always be at convenient times. To see if you're eligible they usually work it out based on your earnings or income.

Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Side effects

The side effects of radiotherapy for melanoma  vary depending on which part of your body is treated. 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. 

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

Information and help

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