Radiation treatment for melanoma

Treatment Overview

Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to destroy or shrink advanced or metastatic melanoma with little harm to nearby healthy tissue. Radiation damages the genetic material of cancer cells, stopping their growth.

Treatment is usually done several times a week for up to 6 weeks.

What To Expect After Treatment

Recovery depends on the tumor site, the stage of the melanoma, and how much healthy tissue is irradiated during treatment.

Why It Is Done

Radiation therapy may be used to treat metastatic melanoma and melanoma in the eye (ocular melanoma).

How Well It Works

Radiation usually does not cure melanoma. It relieves bone pain and other symptoms caused by metastases to the bones, brain, and organs such as the liver.1 Radiation treatment is being investigated for more widespread use in controlling other symptoms of skin cancer.


Risks of radiation therapy include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Discoloration (usually pink or reddish), dryness, or shrinking of skin (radiation dermatitis).
  • Diarrhea if the skin over the abdomen or pelvis is radiated.

What To Think About

Experts disagree about the role of radiation therapy for metastatic melanoma. It is not clear how much radiation is needed to kill the melanoma without damaging surrounding normal tissue.

Superficial contact radiation therapy has been used in Europe for the treatment of primary melanoma. This therapy uses high doses of radiation and is suitable only for superficial melanomas, those on the skin surface that have not penetrated into the skin layers.

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  1. National Cancer Institute (2008). Melanoma PDQ: Treatment—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/melanoma/healthprofessional.

Last Updated: December 5, 2008

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