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What Happens During Radiation Therapy for Melanoma

Radiation treatments are not painful. You will most likely have the treatment as an outpatient. That means you may have it at a hospital or a clinic, but you don’t generally have to stay the night. You may also have it as an inpatient.

You will talk with a doctor who specializes in both cancer and radiation, called a radiation oncologist. This doctor can determine whether you need radiation, what dose you need, and the treatment length. During your visit, ask what you can expect to feel during and after the treatment.

The type of radiation used most often for melanoma is external radiation. That means the radiation comes from a machine and is directed to skin at or near the tumor.

Preparing for External Radiation

Before you start getting treated with radiation, you’ll meet with your radiation therapist for a process called simulation. The goal of this meeting is to determine which position you’ll need to be in during future treatments. Your doctor will want to make sure that the radiation is directed at the same spot each time. The appointment may take up to two hours. Here’s what you can expect to happen:

  • You’ll lie still on a table while the radiation therapist uses a machine to define your treatment field. That’s the exact area on your body where the radiation will be aimed. You may have more than one treatment field if you have cancer in more than one place.

  • The radiation therapist may place special shields to protect organs, such as your lungs, heart, and kidneys, from high-dose radiation.

  • You may also have imaging scans, such as computed tomography scans (CT scans). These help doctors pinpoint the exact location of your cancer.

  • You may also have body molds made to help keep you from moving during the treatment.

  • Once you’ve found a comfortable position and it’s clear where the radiation needs to go, the radiation therapist will mark your body with ink. It won’t wash off right away in the shower.

What Happens On Days You Get External Radiation

On the days you receive radiation treatment, you may change into a hospital gown. Then you’ll lie on a table while the machine is placed over you. This is somewhat like getting an X-ray. You remain in the radiation room for 20 to 30 minutes, but the treatment itself could take just a few minutes. The therapist lines up the machine exactly with your marked treatment fields.

The radiation therapist will leave the room to turn on the machine, but you will be able to talk to the therapist over an intercom. You may hear whirring or clicking noises. Many treatment plans require that you get radiation treatments every day for five days in a row for several weeks. You will not be radioactive afterward.