The Big Heat – Radiation Treatment for Skin Cancer

You can prevent skin cancer. This cancer, among the fastest growing in North America, is avoidable. Stay out of the sun or/and, wear the proper protection against the rays and your risk decreases dramatically. If, however, you discover you have skin cancer, your doctor may suggest you undergo radiation treatment. While most people who catch their skin cancer at an early stage will not need this, some more advanced stages of skin cancer may need radiation treatment.

What is Radiation Treatment?

Radiation treatment is known under several different names. Some refer to it as radiation therapy while others call it irradiation. This treatment was first discovered and applied to skin cancer in the 1890s. Radiation treatment, as first discovered by Marie and Pierre Cure, employs high-energy rays (beams) or even sub-atomic particles. The purpose of the exposure then and now to such powerful substances is to help treat and/or control the cancer in the skin. Since its initial invention, techniques have advanced significantly and have been improved for higher efficiency and effectiveness.2

There are also two distinct types of radiation treatment. They are: external beam radiation and internal radiation, or brachytherapy. External radiation applies the radiation dosage directly to the site of the malignant growth. Internal radiation treatment implants a type of radioactive material in a small tube directly within the body at the site of the tumor.3 Both types are intended to remove all traces of the cancerous growth and prevent its occurrence. External radation is far more commonly used than brachytherapy.

What does it Do?

This procedure works to accomplish one or all of three specific things:

  1. Kill or eliminate any skin cancer cells
  2. Reduce in size a tumor
  3. Stop the growth and/or division of cancer cells

How Does it Accomplish this?

Radiation treatment accomplishes any of these tasks by targeting the DNA of the cancer cells. Since cancer cells are more rapidly dividing than normal cells, their DNA is more sensitive than normal cells, and radiation is able to attack and destroy more malignant than healthy cells.

The Procedure

Before you can even start radiation treatment, your oncologist has to determine two specific things: the right amount of dosage and the exact location of the growth. There can be no guesses. Factors such as the age, skin type, physical condition, age and even amount of dosage possible will be included in making the decision on what type and how much radiation the patient will receive. If it is believed that the cancer has spread, it may be necessary to under go various imaging studies to determine the cancers location. This may include CT, MRI , or PET scans. In certain instances, it is necessary to use more than one type of radiation. This will mean more than one machine to direct the rays at the affected area.4

Once this has been completed, the surgeon will proceed with the treatment. Using the proper equipment, he will aim the powerful rays at the affected area. The machine will focus the radiation on the specific area for as long as the oncologist has decided is feasible. Because the dosage has to be a certain level, the length of the procedure is not short. This is to ensure the maximum amount of radiation for killing the cancer cells is used without harming the patient.

In fact, the process of radiation treatment is a slow and ongoing one. It will take several sessions over a period of weeks to complete. The area receiving treatment should heal between 4 to 8 weeks following the completion of your radiation treatments.

Radiation treatment can be used on its own as a satisfactory means of preventing or killing cancer of the skin. Yet, it also acts as both pre- and post other types of cancer surgery. It is used to shrink the cancer cells to increase the overall success rate of compete removal of the tumor. It is also used following surgery. In this case it is used to help kill off any malignant cells that might have escaped.

One further use of radiation therapy is called palliative. It is used to help reduce pain, shrink the tumors, stop bleeding and to treat various other symptoms of cancer that are not curable.

Side Effects

Most individuals who undergo radiation therapy suffer from side effects. These will differ according to several interacting factors. The factors involved include:

  • Which part of the body is receiving treatment
  • What the type of radiation is being applied
  • Dosage – The overall level or amount being used
  • Physical condition – The general health of the person
  • Age – How old is the patient?5

Among the most common effects for the skin are:6

  • The skin breaks open
  • There is a moist discharge from the area of treatment
  • The skin may become red
  • The skin can also become itchy or dry
  • The skin may be warm to the touch
  • Swelling may occur
  • Small blisters may appear on the surface of the affected skin

Certain side effects are related to the specific area of treatment. For example, if your receive radiation on the nose, it may bleed. If radiation therapy includes the chest and lungs, you might experience soreness and chest pains when you swallow. If the treatment occurs on your head or neck, you might have difficulty in swallowing or changes in how food and drink taste.

If your doctor decides radiation treatment is the best way to treat your skin cancer, be sure you read up on it and understand its effects. There are a number of excellent resources to contact to help you understand the process. They can also help you consider such aspects as after care.


1 Radiation Therapy for Cancer (2011). National Cancer Institute.  Retrieved from:

2 Sarg, M. J. and Gross, A. D. (2007). The Cancer Dictonary Third Edition (MD Anderson Cancer Clinic, 2011). New York: Checkmark Books.

3 Understanding Radiation Therapy (2011). American Cancer Society. Retrieved from:

4 Radiation Therapy for Cancer, op. cit.

5 Understanding Radiation Therapy, op.cit.

6 McLanahan, S. A., and McLanahan, D. J. (2002). Surgery And Its Alternatives.   New York: TwinStream Books.