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What You Might Not Know About Skin Cancer and Radiation Therapy

As the body’s largest organ, the skin gives rise to more cancers than any other part of the body. In 2018, more than five million new skin cancers will be diagnosed in the United States — and this number is expected to rise in 2019.

Understanding the most common types of skin cancer

Skin cancer types are divided into two rough categories: melanoma and non-melanoma. Around 98 percent of all skin cancers fall into the non-melanoma category, most commonly basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers typically are associated with long-term sun damage.

Basal cell carcinomas account for about 80 percent of skin cancers. They grow slowly and are unlikely to spread to other parts of the body. Squamous cell carcinomas are also highly curable but are slightly more aggressive than basal cell carcinomas.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are rarely life-threatening, and most patients have very good outcomes if treated at an early stage.

Treating basal and squamous cell cancers

Treatment options for skin cancer include surgery, radiation therapy and topical medications. Treatments may be used alone or in combination with each other. The best skin cancer treatment for any patient depends on several factors, including their overall health, as well as the type, size and location of their skin cancer.

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, is a safe and effective cancer treatment option that offers high cure rates for early stage skin cancers. Radiation therapy may be preferred to surgery when surgical removal of the skin cancer is challenging, such as with large cancers or cancers located on the nose, lips, ears, hands, feet or eyelids. For advanced stages (when the tumor has invaded nearby tissue or spread to lymph nodes) radiation is used with surgery to make sure the tumor does not come back at the site of the operation.

Radiation is a non-invasive treatment that targets the superficial skin with high energy to damage the DNA inside cancer cells. Once this happens, cancer cells are no longer able to grow and spread.  Normal skin cells are also affected by radiation, but unlike cancer cells, they can repair themselves.

The most common side effects of radiation treatments for skin cancer are redness and irritation in the treated area, similar to a sunburn. Creams and other relief options are available to address these side effects, which tend to resolve soon after treatment is complete.

Ultimately, skin cancer is both more common and more curable than you may think. If you have spots or moles that are new or growing, talk to your doctor or a dermatologist.

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