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Treating Skin Cancer

The treatment you receive depends on several factors including your overall health, stage of the disease and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.  Treatments are often combined and can include:

  • Radiation therapy where the cancer cells are killed by X-rays.
  • Surgery where the cancer cells are cut out and removed.
  • Electrodessication where the cancer is dried with an electric current and removed.
  • Cryosurgery where the cancer is frozen and removed.
  • Laser surgery where the cancer cells are killed by laser beams.
  • Chemotherapy where the cancer cells are attacked by a drug that is either taken internally or applied on the skin.
  • Photodynamic therapy where the cancer is covered with a drug that becomes active when exposed to light.
  • Biologic therapy where doctors help your immune system better fight the cancer.

Understanding Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, is the careful use of IONIZING radiation to treat many different kinds of cancer.

  • Cancer doctors, called radiation oncologists, use radiation therapy to try to cure cancer, to control cancer growth or to relieve symptoms such as pain.
  • Radiation therapy works within cancer cells by damaging their ability to multiply.  When these cells die, the body naturally eliminates them.
  • Healthy cells are also damaged by radiation, but they are able to repair themselves in a way cancer cells cannot.

External Beam Radiation Therapy

External beam radiation therapy may be used to treat skin cancer and to relieve pain from cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

  • Treatments are usually given daily, Monday through Friday, for several weeks to divide the total dose of radiation needed into small packages that allow normal tissues that must be included in the treatment field to heal overnight.
  • Treatments are painless and take less than half an hour each, start to finish.
  • Radiation therapy is often given in addition to surgery, chemotherapy or biologic therapy.
  • Skin cancer is often treated with superficial forms of radiation that penetrate only a short distance below the surface because they tend to be thin and on the surface of the skin.

Potential Side Effects

You may be able to keep up your normal activities during treatment.

  • Side effects are totally limited to the part of your body that receives radiation.
  • Skin changes that look like a sunburn, such as redness, dryness or itching are common side effects.
  • You will also likely lose any hair in the area treated, but nowhere else.
  • Side effects typically go away within a few weeks of the end of treatment.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about any discomfort you feel. He or she may be able to provide medicines or other treatments to help.