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Radiotherapy for skin cancer

Find out what radiotherapy you have for skin cancer and the side effects.

What it is

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells in the area being treated. There are 2 main types of radiotherapy, external and internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy).

You usually have external radiotherapy for non melanoma skin cancer. But in some cases, your doctor might use brachytherapy instead but this is less common. 

When you have it

Radiotherapy is a treatment for non melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell cancer (BCC) and squamous cell cancer (SCC). It's a treatment for skin cancers:

  • that cover a large area
  • in areas of the body that are difficult to operate on
  • where the appearance after surgery may be poor
  • in people who don't want surgery
  • in people who aren't fit enough for a general anaesthetic

You might have radiotherapy after surgery to try to lower the risk of the cancer coming back (adjuvant treatment). 

Or you might have radiotherapy if your cancer has spread to your lymph nodes or another part of your body, such as the lungs.

How you have it

You have radiotherapy treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. The number of treatments you have depends on the type of skin cancer you have, where it is and how big it is.

You usually have radiotherapy once a day, from Monday to Friday, over a number of weeks. You have a rest at the weekend. The length of treatment varies from one to about 6 weeks. 

Older and frail people may have their radiotherapy treatment less often. So they don't need to attend the radiotherapy department daily. Some treatment plans might be once a week or 2 to 3 times a week.

Some people might have a single treatment of radiotherapy.  

Your doctor will tell you what treatment plan is best for you.

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.

Side effects

Radiotherapy to the skin can cause the skin to become slightly red and sore during the treatment. This will begin to disappear once the treatment is finished. The skin may become crusty and scab over at first. When the scab falls off, there'll be healthy skin underneath. This area will be more sensitive to the sun in the future.

You might have some hair loss if you have radiotherapy to a part of the body that has hair. Your hair will start to grow back some time after treatment. This may take up to a year, depending on the amount of treatment. The regrowth may be patchy.

Information and help

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