Radiotherapy to the skin

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Radiotherapy is a localised treatment and side effects depend on the area of your skin receiving the X-rays. There are two types of side effects; those which come on during or immediately after treatment (acute side effects) and those which can be long term (late side effects). Your oncologists will have taken these into account when considering the benefits of treatment and will inform you of the side effects you are likely to get. Please discuss any concerns with your doctor, specialist nurse or radiographer at the time of consent or at any time during radiotherapy.

This information sheet provides a brief introduction to radiotherapy and explains the common side effects you may experience. This does not mean you will definitely get them. It is also possible you may experience a side effect not mentioned here.

Your first appointment
at the radiotherapy centre will in the treatment machine or in the mould room. Report to the reception desk, show them your card, and they will direct you to the appropriate place. The purpose of this visit is to plan and arrange the radiotherapy so you may not have a formal consultation with the Doctor at this stage. Of course any urgent issues will be addressed but others should be saved for the regular consultations you will have during treatment. It is often difficult to judge exactly how long each patient will take - unfortunately it is possible that you may wait a long time.

The treatment machine
  Although the radiographers are not in the room while you are being treated, you are being watched at all times on a video camera. If you feel any distress, the machine can be turned off and the radiographers will be at your side within seconds. There is also an intercom which is left on. Treatment usually lasts only 1 to 2 minutes. While the machine is on, you usually do not have any sensation. After treatment you will not be radioactive and you will not lose the hair on your head unless it is being treated.

Acute side effects
The skin may get red and itchy and possibly a little sore. Sometimes there may be a little oozing which can be slightly blood-stained. A scab can sometimes form.

During your treatment, you may gently wash the area with lukewarm water, using a mild soap and dry by patting lightly with a towel. Make-up or creams other than those prescribed by a radiotherapist should not be applied to the treated area during treatment, or until the redness begins to settle. Do not cover the area with a plaster. It is best left open to the air but avoid exposing the area to the sun.

If the area is very red and sore, or oozing, do not wash it. Report to your doctor and a steroid cream may be prescribed for you. Do not use talc on such an area. Unless your reaction is severe you may wash the treated area normally again 10 days or so after completion of treatment.

As healing occurs the damaged skin will scale. If there is a scab present this may take four to six weeks to come off. If you notice some pus under the scab let your doctor know as the scab may then need to be removed earlier.


Late side effects
The treated area remains pinker than the surrounding skin for several months. It then becomes paler. Eventually it will be whiter and thinner than normal skin. Occasionally tiny red lines appear; these are small blood vessels which are due to the radiotherapy treatment. Very occasionally an ulcer may form after radiotherapy. If this happens it may take several months to heal.

 Additional general information can be found in the Addenbrooke's "Patient handbook" , the BACUP booklets "Understanding radiotherapy" and "Understanding cancer of the skin" . These can be obtained from the racks around the centre or clicking on the BACUP gateway site via our links page. A video called "Radiotherapy & chemotherapy" is also available from the information centre at Addenbrooke's or by e-mailing HEP on or visiting the HEP homepage.


Further general information Your doctors and specialist nurses are in an ideal position to give you relevant information on your disease and treatment as they know your individual circumstances. Cancerbackup has a help line (0808 800 1234) and a prize winning video available in English, Italian, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati & Hindi explaining Radiotherapy & Chemotherapy. has over 500 pages describing cancer, its management, practical tips and tool which patients, their carers and their doctors have found helpful during the cancer journey.

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