Radiation therapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. In general, radiation therapy is not useful for treating melanoma. In some cases, it may be used after surgery to prevent the spread or recurrence of cancer. Radiation therapy may be useful in easing symptoms created by metastatic melanoma.
If radiation therapy is an option, a radiation oncologist will customize the treatment dose for individual needs. The goal is to try and kill as much cancer as possible while minimizing harm to healthy tissue.
External Beam Radiation
In external beam radiation therapy, a machine directs high-energy rays through the body and into the tumor. The radiation oncologist will discuss options, doses, and frequency of radiation so that the highest amount of radiation can be delivered to the cancer with as little impact on healthy tissue as possible.
Stereotactic radiosurgery is a type of external radiation therapy. This method allows delivery of higher doses of radiation because it can precisely deliver it to the tumor and not healthy tissue. The precise delivery may also require fewer doses than traditional radiation therapy.
Side Effects and Management
Complications of radiation therapy depend on where it is directed, and may include:
Shortness of breath
Problems swallowing or eating
Abdominal and pelvic complications:
Bladder irritation—may cause blood in the urine, or pain or burning during urination
Anal or rectal irritiation—may cause blood in the stool, pain during bowel movements, or stool leakage
Vaginal dryness— may cause discomfort during intercourse
Infertility—talk to your doctor about options to preserve fertility before starting treatment
A variety of treatments are available to help manage side effects of radiation therapy, such as dry, irritated skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue due to anemia. Sometimes adjustments to treatment doses may also be possible. The earlier side effects are addressed, the more likely they will be controlled with a minimum of discomfort.
Melanoma. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/cancers-of-the-skin/melanoma. Updated February 2017. Accessed March 16, 2017.
Mendenhall WM, Amdur RJ, Grobmyer SR, et al. Adjuvant radiotherapy for cutaneous melanoma. Cancer. 2008;112(6):1189-1196.
Radiation therapy for melanoma skin cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/treating/radiation-therapy.html. Updated May 20, 2016. Accessed March 16, 2017.
Treatment option overview. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/patient/melanoma-treatment-pdq#section/_135. Updated March 10, 2017. Accessed March 16, 2017.
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