Superficial Radiotherapy

Superficial radiotherapy (SRT) is a skin cancer treatment option, that alleviates the need for an invasive surgery. This method uses a focused beam of low-energy X-rays to precisely target and eradicate cancerous cells in the skin.

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UC Health has been a leader in superficial X-ray therapy for skin cancer for over 30 years, backed by physicians with over 100 years of combined experience in using this technology effectively.

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Understanding Superficial Radiotherapy

Superficial radiotherapy (SRT), or superficial radiation therapy is a vital treatment option for skin cancer, offering a non-surgical route that alleviates the need for invasive surgery. This method employs a focused beam of low-energy X-rays to precisely target and eradicate cancerous cells in the skin. SRT is distinguished by its simplicity and non-invasiveness, featuring a quick, painless procedure that allows patients to continue their daily activities without downtime.

Superficial radiotherapy has become an increasingly preferred choice for treating skin cancer, thanks to its effectiveness and minimal side effects. It is a modern alternative that conserves the skin's integrity and appearance, making it a significant advancement in cancer care.

What is Superficial Radiotherapy?

Superficial radiotherapy (SRT) is a specialized form of radiation therapy designed specifically for treating certain types of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Unlike deeper forms of radiation that penetrate further into the body, SRT targets only the upper layers of the skin, making it an effective option for non-melanoma skin cancers.

The therapy is administered using an Xstrahl superficial X-ray machine, a device that emits a precise beam of low-energy X-rays. These X-rays damage the DNA of cancer cells, which inhibits their ability to reproduce and eventually leads to their destruction. Because the radiation is focused on the skin's surface, the underlying tissues remain largely unaffected, minimizing the risk of deeper tissue damage.

Superficial radiotherapy differs from other radiation treatments in its application and intensity. It is less intense than other forms of radiation therapy, which means treatments can typically be completed in shorter sessions over a series of weeks, depending on the individual’s treatment plan.

The Role of Superficial Radiotherapy in Skin Cancer Treatment

Superficial radiotherapy (SRT) is primarily utilized to treat basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma—two common types of non-melanoma skin cancers. These cancers are typically found on areas of the skin exposed to the sun, such as the face, ears, neck, scalp, and arms. SRT offers a targeted approach that preserves the health of surrounding tissues while focusing directly on the affected areas.

Comparing SRT to Other Skin Cancer Treatments:

While Mohs surgery is another prevalent method for treating these types of skin cancer, SRT provides a distinct advantage for patients who might seek a non-surgical option. Unlike Mohs surgery, which involves cutting out the cancerous tissue and immediately examining it, SRT does not require any surgical incisions, which results in no physical scars and reduces the risk of infection.

Moreover, SRT is often recommended for patients who are not ideal candidates for surgery due to their medical conditions or for those who prefer a less invasive treatment. It is also a preferred option when cancers are located in cosmetically sensitive areas where surgery might lead to significant scarring.

Efficacy and Outcomes:

Studies and clinical practice have shown that superficial radiotherapy is highly effective, with success rates upwards of 95% for early-stage tumors. This makes it a compelling option for both primary treatment and for recurring skin cancers.

The Process of Superficial Radiotherapy

Administering superficial radiotherapy (SRT) involves a meticulous and patient-centric approach to ensure maximum effectiveness while minimizing discomfort and potential side effects. Here is an outline of the typical process:

Consultation and Planning: The journey begins with a thorough consultation with a radiation oncologist. During this stage, the doctor assesses the patient's medical history, examines the skin cancer, and discusses possible treatment outcomes. This initial consultation is crucial for designing a personalized treatment plan tailored to the specific needs and health status of the patient.

Treatment Sessions: Superficial radiotherapy is usually administered over several sessions, depending on the size, type, and location of the skin cancer. Each session typically lasts about five minutes and is conducted using an Xstrahl superficial X-ray machine. This machine is specifically designed to target only the superficial layers of the skin, thereby protecting the deeper tissues and organs from radiation exposure.

During each session, the patient will sit or lie comfortably while the machine directs a precise beam of low-energy X-rays to the affected area. This process is painless, and patients can return to their daily activities immediately after each treatment.

Follow-Up Care: After completing the treatment sessions, patients will have regular follow-ups to monitor the treated area and ensure that the cancer has been effectively managed. These follow-ups also help in detecting any potential recurrence early and managing any side effects that may have occurred.

Role of the Radiation Therapist: A radiation therapist plays a key role throughout the treatment process. They are responsible for setting up the treatment according to the oncologist’s instructions, operating the therapy equipment, and ensuring the patient's comfort and safety during each session.

Advantages of Superficial Radiotherapy

Superficial radiotherapy (SRT) provides several key benefits that make it an attractive option for many patients diagnosed with skin cancer:

Effectiveness and Precision: SRT is highly effective in targeting and eliminating basal and squamous cell carcinomas, with success rates that often exceed 95% for localized cancers. The precision of the low-energy X-ray beam ensures that the treatment is confined to the cancerous cells, sparing the surrounding healthy tissue from unnecessary radiation exposure.

Minimal Side Effects: One of the most significant advantages of SRT is the minimal side effects compared to more invasive treatments. Common side effects are typically mild and may include skin redness, irritation, and temporary changes in skin color or texture, similar to a sunburn. These symptoms generally resolve on their own within a few weeks post-treatment.

No Surgical Risks: Since SRT is non-invasive, it eliminates risks associated with surgical procedures, such as infections, complications from anesthesia, and lengthy recovery times. This aspect is particularly beneficial for patients who are older or have underlying health conditions that make surgery risky.

Convenience and Comfort: Treatments are quick, usually lasting about five minutes per session, and do not require hospital stays. Patients can immediately resume their daily activities after each treatment, making SRT a convenient option for those with active lifestyles or work commitments.

Cosmetic Outcomes: For cancers located in visible areas, such as the face or neck, SRT offers superior cosmetic outcomes by avoiding surgical scars. This is especially important for patients concerned about the aesthetic aspects of skin cancer treatment.

Considerations and Limitations of Superficial Radiotherapy

While superficial radiotherapy offers numerous benefits, patients must be aware of certain limitations and considerations before choosing this treatment option:

Potential Side Effects: Although the side effects of SRT are generally mild compared to other treatments, patients may experience skin irritation, redness, and peeling similar to a sunburn. These effects are usually temporary but can be uncomfortable. In rare cases, long-term side effects may include changes in skin texture or the development of new skin cancers in the treated area after several years.

Limitations in Treatment Scope: SRT is most effective for treating non-melanoma skin cancers that are superficial and localized. It may not be suitable for more aggressive or deeply rooted cancers, which might require more penetrating forms of radiation therapy or comprehensive surgical intervention.

Individual Suitability: Not all patients are ideal candidates for superficial radiotherapy. Factors such as the specific type and stage of skin cancer, previous radiation exposure, and overall skin condition can influence whether SRT is the recommended treatment. A radiation oncologist will evaluate each patient's unique situation to determine the best course of action.

Comparative Effectiveness: While SRT is highly effective for certain types of skin cancer, patients need to discuss all available treatment options with their healthcare provider. This includes comparing SRT to other non-invasive treatments or surgical alternatives like Mohs surgery, which may offer different benefits and risks.

Superficial Radiotherapy vs. Other Treatments

Superficial radiotherapy (SRT) presents a viable alternative to more invasive skin cancer treatments, offering distinct benefits and considerations. Here's how SRT compares to other common treatments like surgical procedures and other forms of dermatological therapies:

Surgical Procedures:

  • Mohs Surgery: Often considered the gold standard for certain types of skin cancer, Mohs surgery involves the precise removal of cancerous tissue layer by layer, checking each layer under a microscope until no cancer cells remain. While highly effective, Mohs surgery can be more invasive and typically requires localized anesthesia. It also potentially leaves scars, depending on the amount of tissue removed.
  • Excisional Surgery: This involves cutting out the cancerous tissue along with some healthy tissue around it as a margin. This can be effective for thicker or more invasive cancers but also comes with the risks of surgery, such as bleeding, infection, and scarring.

Non-Surgical Dermatological Treatments:

  • Cryotherapy: This method uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. Cryotherapy is quick and can be performed in a doctor's office. However, it may require multiple treatments and is less controlled than SRT, which can lead to damage of nearby healthy tissue.
  • Topical Treatments: These involve applying creams or gels that contain cancer-fighting agents directly to the skin. While non-invasive, topical treatments generally have lower success rates and are limited to very superficial cancers.

Cosmetic and Medical Dermatology:

  • Laser Therapy: Used for various skin conditions, including some types of skin cancers, laser therapy is less invasive but may not be suitable for all cancer types or depths.
  • Photodynamic Therapy (PDT): This involves applying a drug that becomes active when exposed to a specific type of light. PDT is effective for superficial cancers but may require multiple sessions and can cause significant sensitivity to light for some time after treatment.

Role of Radiation Oncology in Comprehensive Cancer Care:

  • Traditional Radiation Therapy: For deeper or more aggressive cancers, traditional radiation therapy might be employed. This therapy penetrates deeper into the body to target cancer cells, which can be necessary for advanced stages but comes with a higher risk of side effects compared to SRT.

Let's now explore what patients can expect throughout their treatment journey with superficial radiotherapy:

The Patient Journey in Superficial Radiotherapy

Embarking on a treatment plan with superficial radiotherapy (SRT) involves several stages, each designed to ensure the best outcomes while maintaining comfort and minimizing anxiety. Here is a typical patient journey:

Initial Consultation: The process begins with an initial consultation where a radiation oncologist evaluates the patient's medical history, the specifics of their skin cancer, and overall health. This meeting is crucial for establishing a personalized treatment plan and for the patient to ask questions and express any concerns.

Treatment Planning: Following the consultation, detailed planning takes place. This includes mapping out the precise treatment area using imaging techniques. The goal is to maximize the efficacy of the radiation while protecting the surrounding healthy tissue.

Undergoing Treatment: Treatments are typically brief, about five minutes per session, and are scheduled over several weeks to allow healthy skin to recover between sessions. Patients do not need anesthesia, as the procedure is painless, and they can usually return to daily activities immediately afterward.

Monitoring and Adjustment: Throughout the treatment period, the radiation oncologist will monitor the response of the skin cancer to SRT and adjust the treatment plan if necessary. This ongoing evaluation helps to optimize outcomes while addressing any side effects as they arise.

Post-Treatment Care: After completing SRT, patients will have follow-up appointments to monitor healing and ensure that the cancer has been successfully treated. These appointments are also important for catching any signs of recurrence early and discussing long-term skin care to prevent new cancers.

Support Services: Many facilities, including those offering SRT, provide additional support services such as counseling and patient education programs. These resources are designed to help patients cope with the emotional aspects of cancer treatment and to educate them on how to manage their skin health post-treatment.

Innovations in Superficial Radiotherapy

The field of superficial radiotherapy (SRT) continues to evolve, with ongoing research and technological advancements enhancing the effectiveness and patient experience. Here are some of the latest developments in this area:

Technological Advancements:

  • Image-Guided Superficial Radiotherapy: While image-guided superficial radiotherapy is being marketed as a new technology, it involves real-time imaging to guide radiation therapy with precision. However, it's important to note that this modality has not demonstrated clear superiority over conventional superficial X-ray therapy. Furthermore, the increased costs associated with image-guided technology might not justify the investment for many patients and insurance providers. At UC Health, we continue to rely on our proven, cost-effective conventional superficial X-ray therapy, which has been effectively treating skin cancers without the additional financial burden.
  • Refined Radiation Equipment: Advances in the equipment used for SRT, such as improvements in X-ray sources and radiation delivery systems, have made treatments even safer and more precise. These innovations reduce treatment times and enhance comfort for patients.

Clinical Trials and Research:

  • Ongoing clinical trials are exploring the use of SRT in combination with other therapies, such as topical treatments or immune-enhancing drugs, to improve outcomes and reduce recurrence rates.
  • Research into the biological effects of low-energy X-rays on different types of skin cancer cells is also providing insights that could lead to more personalized treatment approaches based on genetic profiles.

Patient-Centered Innovations:

  • Enhanced Patient Comfort: Efforts to make the treatment experience more comfortable include the use of ergonomic treatment chairs and calming environment settings in treatment rooms.
  • Educational Resources: Many treatment centers are now offering comprehensive digital resources that allow patients to understand their treatment options better and manage their care proactively. These resources often include video tutorials, FAQ sections, and direct communication links to healthcare providers.

Help Along the Way

Answers to Your Questions about Superficial Radiotherapy

Superficial radiotherapy has shown high effectiveness rates, achieving success in upwards of 95% of cases, particularly for early-stage basal and squamous cell carcinomas. This makes it a reliable option for patients seeking non-invasive treatment for skin cancer.

No, there is no residual radioactivity in the body after undergoing superficial radiotherapy. The low-energy X-rays used in this treatment do not make patients radioactive, allowing them to safely interact with others immediately after each session.

Each session of superficial radiotherapy typically lasts about 5 minutes. The total number of treatment days can range from 5 to 20, depending on the specific characteristics of the skin cancer and the personalized treatment plan devised by the radiation oncologist.

No, superficial radiotherapy does not require taking time off from work. Since the treatment sessions are brief and there is no recovery time needed, patients can continue with their daily activities, including work, immediately after treatment.

Headaches are not a common side effect of superficial radiotherapy, especially when treating the scalp. The treatment specifically targets the skin and minimally affects underlying tissues. However, if you experience headaches or any other unusual symptoms, it’s important to discuss them with your radiation oncologist to rule out any other causes.

Why UC Health

The Most Experienced in the Region

Tried and True Innovation

Superficial radiotherapy has been around for 130 years.

The Most Experienced Team

UC Health has been using superficial radiotherapy for over 30 years achieving excellent outcomes for patients.

Quick. Non-invasive. Painless.

Superficial radiotherapy replaces the need for Surgery.

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