Radiation therapy and treatment of skin cancers - Understanding your options

More skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States than all other cancer types combined. In fact, approximately  9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. While skin cancer impacts many people, each person may experience different impacts to their quality of life including:

  • Functional limitations
  • Financial constraints due to continued cost of treatment if the cancer returns
  • Cosmetic burdens
  • Disturbances to daily life 

No one plans on getting skin cancer, but a good plan can help you beat it. 

Treatment options for skin cancer

Treatment options for skin cancer vary depending on the skin cancer type, size, depth, location and personal health status. In many instances, a dermatologist can treat skin cancer using topical creams, surgery, or some forms of low-energy, superficial radiation therapy. In some instances where the cancer comes back, if there is widespread disease, or if there are concerns about cosmetic or functional results, more advanced forms of radiation therapy may be an option. 

Exploring radiation therapy as an option

Radiation therapy employs advanced technologies to target high-energy radiation beams to destroy cancer cells. Radiation for skin cancer is delivered externally and has high cure rates, generally comparable to surgery.1-9 It uses technology to precisely target cancerous tissue while sparing the underlying and adjacent healthy tissues. 

The length and type of skin cancer radiation treatment varies depending on the cancer extent, location, and the person’s needs and goals. Patients can usually continue their normal activities during treatment. 

Treatments are typically shorter in length and do not cause any discomfort. As the skin begins to heal, some mild reactions such as redness, dryness, itching, inflammation, soreness and pain are expected and normal. These reactions may develop gradually but are often manageable and will go away shortly after treatment is complete. 

During radiation, you should have access to a multidisciplinary team who will help manage your treatment from start to finish, taking into account your particular needs and goals. Your care team can answer any questions you might have, as well as help you manage any side effects you experience. 

Watch the video below to learn more about what to expect during radiation therapy for skin cancer.

Feel informed. Feel empowered.

When you are diagnosed with skin cancer, it is important to understand all your treatment options. In some instances, radiation therapy may be a good fit based on your individual situation. No matter what treatment route you choose to pursue, educate yourself on what you can expect and how the treatment aligns with your personal needs and goals, because when you feel informed, you feel empowered to make the best decisions about your health care.

This blog post was reviewed for clinical accuracy by Paul Wallner, DO, Radiation Oncologist. It was last updated on May 9, 2023.

  1. Alam M et al. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2018;78(3)560-578.​
  2. Wilder RB et al. Basal cell carcinoma treated with radiation therapy. Cancer. 1991; 68:2134-2137. ​
  3. Wilder RB et al. Recurrent basal cell carcinoma treated with radiation therapy. Arch Dermatol. 1991; 127:1668-1672. ​
  4. Childers BJ et al. Long-term results of irradiation for basal cell carcinoma of the skin of the nose. Plast Reconstr Surg 1994; 93:1169-1173. ​
  5. Hernandex-Machin B et al. Office-based radiation therapy for cutaneous carcinoma: evaluation of 710 treatments. Int J Dermatol. 2007. 46:453-459.​
  6. Cognetta AB etal.Superficial x-ray in the treatment of basal and squamous cell carcinomas: a viable option in select patients. J A Acad Dermatol. 2012. 67:1235-1241. ​
  7. Schulte KW et al Soft x-ray therapy for cutaneous basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005; 53:993-1001. ​
  8. Grossi Marconi D et al.Head and Neck non-melanoma skin cancer treated by superficial x-ray therapy: An analysis of 1021 cases. PLoS One 2016; 11:e0156544. ​
  9. Samarasinghe V, Madan V. Nonmelanoma skin cancer. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2012;5(1):3-10. ​
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