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What to Know About Radiation Therapy for Melanoma

Radiation therapy may be used to treat melanoma. You may have it alone. Or, you may have it with other types of treatment. This treatment uses strong X-rays to kill melanoma cells. Your doctor may suggest it to kill any stray melanoma cells after surgery. It can also be used for advanced melanomas to try to ease pressure or pain.

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Your doctor may suggest radiation therapy for these reasons:

  • The melanoma could not be removed completely by surgery.

  • You are not a good candidate for surgery. For example, if you are elderly or you have melanoma in hard-to-treat areas, such as your eyelid, nose, or ear.

  • You have had your lymph nodes removed but are at high risk of the cancer coming back.

  • The melanoma has returned to your skin or lymph nodes.

  • You have pain or other symptoms. Doctors call treatment to control pain and improve quality of life palliative therapy.

  • The melanoma has spread to your brain or spinal cord. 

For this treatment, you see a specialist called a radiation oncologist, who sets your treatment plan. The plan shows what kind of radiation you’ll have and how long the treatment will last. This doctor can also prepare you for how you may feel during and after the treatment.

To help decide on your treatment, your radiation oncologist may do some imaging tests, such as computed tomography scans (CT scans). Imaging tests take pictures of the inside of your body. They help find out where you need treatment. You may have the same tests after treatment to see how well it worked.

Once your radiation oncologist has mapped out your treatment plan, a radiation therapist gives you the radiation. You may have this treatment either as an outpatient or as an inpatient. This depends on your cancer. If you’re having treatment directed at just a small part of your body, it will most likely be outpatient. (That means you don’t need to stay the night in a hospital.)

External radiation for melanoma comes from a machine outside your body that directs strong X-rays at the tumor. You usually get these treatments once a day for five days in a row. You’ll do this for several weeks. Each session only takes a few minutes.