Getting treated for skin cancer shouldn’t be disfiguring or painful.

Doctors at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center are using a new technique to treat nonmelanoma skin cancer. The procedure known as skin brachytherapy uses a device called a Leipzig applicator to deliver radiation directly to the cancerous lesion.

This noninvasive alternative to surgery targets the cancer cells without causing pain or damaging surrounding tissue.

“The treatment is particularly effective in the early stages of nonmelanoma skin cancer,” said Dr. William Warlick , a radiation oncologist at Southeast Radiation Oncology. “It’s most effective in the treatment of squamous and basal skin cancer lesions smaller than 3 millimeters.”

Warlick added that elderly patients who are taking blood thinners and people who have cancer lesions located in delicate areas that are hard to reach are good candidates for the treatment.

How it works

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays, or other particles, to destroy cancer cells. Because of the high degree of precision, the treatment can pinpoint the lesion and spare much of the surrounding area. The procedure is administered by a specialist called a radiation oncologist.

Radiation therapy is a good alternative to surgery for skin cancer, particularly in hard-to-treat places such as on an eyelid, the nose, lips or ear. Unlike surgery, radiation therapy does not cause scarring and typically results in little, if any, cosmetic damage. There is also no damage to surrounding tissue.

“The Leipzig treatment differs from traditional external beam radiation therapy,” Warlick said. “It is more precise and can be used directly over the tumor.”

“There is also less exposure for the surrounding tissue,” he added.

Skin brachytherapy with the Leipzig applicator is painless since there is no cutting or blood loss as with surgery. The treatments are short, lasting three to five minutes with the course of treatment usually consisting of six to seven applications over two weeks, Warlick said.

More importantly, brachytherapy not only provides good cosmetic results but it has also been shown to be highly effective in preventing the skin cancer from returning, studies have shown.

“It is between 93 to 95 percent effective depending on the size of the lesion,” Warlick said.

Side effects are generally mild and dissipate quickly, usually within two weeks of treatment. Short-term side effects include redness of the treated area and peeling or moist skin. Longer term, patients may experience some discoloration of the skin and loss of hair at the treatment site.

“There’s no pain or discomfort following the treatment,” Warlick said. “Sometimes, patients will experience some dry peeling or moist blistering at the treatment site.”

Warlick said the cosmetic outcome for patients is excellent.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 3 million Americans are diagnosed with nonmelanoma skin cancer each year.

It’s important to discuss treatment options and relative risks of potential side effects with your doctor. Skin cancer can almost always be cured when found early and treated, Warlick said. Be sure to limit your exposure to the sun and perform skin checks on yourself regularly. Tell your doctor if you notice a mole that has changed in size, shape or color.