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Non-melanoma skin cancer

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Radiation therapy for non-melanoma skin cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. For non-melanoma skin cancer, radiation may be used:

  • to treat large tumours or tumours in an area that makes surgery difficult
  • after surgery to destroy cancer cells left behind and to reduce the risk of the cancer recurring (adjuvantadjuvantTreatment given in addition to the first-line therapy (the first or standard treatment) to help reduce the risk of a disease (such as cancer) coming back (recurring). radiation therapy)
  • to treat people who may not be able to have surgery, such as the elderly or people not healthy enough to have surgery
  • to treat tumours that recur after primary surgical treatment
  • to treat cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes
  • to relieve pain or to control the symptoms of advanced non-melanoma skin cancer (palliative radiation therapy)

The amount of radiation given during treatment, and when and how it is given, will be different for each person.

External beam radiation therapy

Non-melanoma skin cancer is usually treated with external beam radiation therapy. A machine directs radiation to the tumour and some of the surrounding tissue.

Radiation therapy is the preferred treatment for tumours of the ear, eyelid, lip and nose because it doesn’t remove normal tissue (which surgery does) and reconstructive surgery is not needed. Radiation therapy may be used for large tumours or tumours that cover a large area. It can also be used to treat cancer that has spread to the nearby lymph nodes.

Radiation therapy given in fractionated doses generally results in a better cosmetic appearance and fewer side effects.

Radiation therapy is often the primary treatment for older people (usually older than 50) who cannot tolerate surgery. It is not the first choice of treatment for younger people (under 40) because of the long-term risks of radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy is not used for people with certain genetic conditions, such as xeroderma pigmentosum, epidermodysplasia verruciformis or basal cell nevus syndrome. This is because these conditions put people at high risk for skin cancer and radiation therapy would further increase the risk of tumours developing in the treatment area. If possible, radiation therapy below the knee is also avoided, especially in the elderly, because poor circulation can decrease healing.

See a list of questions to ask your doctor about radiation therapy.


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