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Non-Surgical Skin Cancer Treatment

After a lifetime of exposure to the sun, Tom Herbert, 74, of Alexandria had four squamous cell skin cancer lesions on his face. When his dermatologist told him that the standard treatment for his skin cancer was Mohs (or microscopic) surgery, Tom balked.

“Ever since childhood, I have had an extreme fear of needles and scalpels,” he says. “It is an enormous anxiety for me.” Then his dermatologist told him about electronic brachytherapy, a new, non-surgical treatment for skin cancer being offered at The Hitt Family Center for Radiation Oncology at Virginia Hospital Center. Electronic brachytherapy uses high doses of targeted radiation to treat basal cell, squamous cell and other types of nonmelanoma skin cancers.

“Electronic brachytherapy is not invasive, is an alternative to surgery, and has excellent cure rates,” says Robert Hong, MD, Chief of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Hospital Center. “It is particularly effective on parts of the body that are difficult to access surgically, including the eyelids, scalp, ears and face. Electronic brachytherapy also can offer better cosmetic outcomes.”

During electronic brachytherapy, a small surface applicator is placed on the skin where the radiation is to be delivered. The patient wears a custom-made shield to protect adjacent healthy tissues. A miniature X-ray source is then placed in the applicator to deliver radiation. The treatments are done twice a week for four weeks; each treatment only takes a few minutes and is completely painless.

“In eight short treatments, Tom had his skin cancer treated just as effectively as surgery,” says Dr. Hong.

Tom has had no side effects or discomfort from his treatment and is very impressed with the staff in the Radiation Oncology Department. “Everyone there is happy to be doing their job,” he says. “They gave me excellent care — and no one stuck me with a needle!”

In addition to treating non-melanoma skin cancers, electronic brachytherapy is now available at Virginia Hospital Center as a one-day treatment for early-stage, low-risk breast cancers.

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