Radiotherapy (also known as 'radiation therapy') works by directing radiation, for example x-rays, gamma rays, electron or proton beams, at the site of a cancerous tumour, which kills or damages the abnormal cancerous cells. This stops them from continuing to grow and stops them from multiplying.
It is used in the treatment of skin cancer, especially large lesions and invasive tumours, and is used to treat both Basal Cell Carcinomas and Squamous Cell Carcinomas. It is an option for patients who do not want to undergo surgery, or where the area of skin affected is not suitable for surgical removal, such as areas near the eyes, nose or on the forehead.
Radiotherapy is often used in conjunction with other treatments, for example after surgery to remove a lesion or tumour in order to kill any remaining abnormal cells near the site that may have been missed. When it is an additional treatment it is referred to as 'adjuvant' treatment. It can also be used to help in the treatment of skin cancer that has spread to other organs in the body or to the lymph nodes.
There are some side effects with radiotherapy treatment - skin that has been treated can become red or blister and peel or the skin colour may change. Any hair in the area of skin being treated may fall out and, where a lesion being treated is near the mouth there may be some damage to teeth and saliva glands.
Radiotherapy is a specialist procedure that is only performed in a hospital by a specialist radiation oncologist on an outpatient basis. Most courses of radiotherapy run over a period of several weeks, although the actual treatment itself generally takes less than 30 minutes.