Radiation therapy is often used as a treatment for Merkel cell carcinoma. The goal of this treatment is to damage cellular DNA so that cancerous cells are no longer able to reproduce. While chemotherapy also works in this manner, radiation therapy does not affect the entire body; instead, it only affects the portion of skin at which the high-energy X-rays are directed. Additionally, Merkel cell carcinomas tend to be more receptive to radiation therapy than chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy is typically provided after surgery for Merkel cell carcinoma. This type of cancer is prone to metastasis, and in most cases, has spread by the time it is diagnosed. Even when a surgeon is able to remove all of the visible cancer cells, microscopic cells might remain unnoticed in the deeper layers of skin. As a result, radiation therapy is often recommended to destroy any residual cells.
Radiation therapy can also be used to:
- Target lymph nodes to which the cancer might have spread
- Treat Merkel cell carcinoma that has spread extensively throughout the body and is not considered to be surgically removable
- Treat Merkel cell carcinoma that has come back after the first round of treatment
While each patient’s exact radiation therapy plan will vary based on the intended goals of treatment, most patients complete five to six weeks of radiation therapy with four to five sessions per week. Although radioactive implants are occasionally used, Merkel cell carcinomas are typically treated with external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). This form of radiation therapy uses machines to generate high-energy beams and aim them at a tumor from outside of the body.
At Moffitt Cancer Center, we use some of the most state-of-the-art technologies when providing radiation therapy. For instance, our equipment can target tumors from multiple angles, delivering high doses to the cancer while limiting exposures to surrounding healthy tissues.
More crucial than our equipment, however, is the world-class expertise of our radiation therapy team. At Moffitt, each patient’s treatment plan is individualized by a group of radiation oncologists, radiation therapists, physicists and dosimetrists. This approach helps us produce the best possible outcomes while helping limit undesirable side effects to enhance each patient’s quality of life.