Treatment Overview

Radiation therapy is used to destroy cancer cells. This procedure may require 15 to 30 visits to a facility with special equipment. Radiation
therapy may be used in combination with other types of therapy to treat
aggressive or recurrent skin cancer.

What To Expect After Treatment

Recovery time may vary depending on the site treated and the amount
of radiation used.

Why It Is Done

Radiation therapy may
be used:

  • If you are older than 60.
  • For skin cancers that are too large or deep to be treated with surgery or with surgery alone.
  • For skin cancers in places that are hard to treat with surgery, such as the eyelid, ear, or nose.
  • For skin cancers that have
    come back after surgery (recurrent).
  • To relieve symptoms but not to
    cure the skin cancer (palliative treatment).

How Well It Works

Surgery and radiation are the primary treatments for nonmelanoma skin cancer, but studies show that surgery has the best results.footnote 1 Still, radiation therapy has very good cure rates and cosmetic results, so sometimes it is the treatment of choice.


Risks of radiation therapy to treat skin cancer include the

  • New skin cancers may occur in the surrounding
  • Skin cancers may come back after radiation therapy and be harder
    to treat successfully.
  • Skin may become dry and hairless. Or skin may lose
    color or become easily infected (chronic radiation
  • Skin may shrink and waste away (skin
  • Healthy skin may be destroyed by radiation (cutaneous

Side effects are common but typically go away when treatment is
finished. They include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Redness and itching of the
    skin in the radiation field.
  • Hair loss in the area inside the
    radiation field. But hair loss can be permanent.
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea if the abdomen or
    pelvis are radiated.

What To Think About

Radiation therapy is most often reserved for use in older adults.
It may lead to other skin cancers in younger people as they

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.



  1. National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2012). Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, Version 2. Available online:


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Amy McMichael, MD – Dermatology

Current as ofMay 3, 2017