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What To Know About Radiation for Penile Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves of radiation to kill cancer cells. Your doctor may use radiation instead of surgery. Or, it is common to have radiation after surgery to make sure that all the cancer cells in your body are destroyed.

Radiation may come from a machine outside the body, called external beam radiation, which is the most common treatment. The treatment is much like getting an X-ray, but the radiation is more intense. Or the radiation may come from a source placed into or near the tumor, called brachytherapy. This type of treatment is done while you are in the hospital. Regardless of the type of radiation treatment received, if you are not circumcised, a circumcision may need to be performed to avoid problems from swelling that may come with radiation.

There are two ways to get brachytherapy for penile cancer. In one method, known as interstitial radiation, small hollow needles are inserted into the penis. Tiny pellets of radioactive materials are put into the needles to treat the tumor. The needles and pellets are kept in place for several days while radioactive rays are released, then the needles are removed. The other method of brachytherapy, called plesiobrachytherapy, uses a cylinder or mold to "encase" the penis with a radioactive source from the outside. Treatment is usually done for several days in a row.

Side effects of radiation therapy

Swelling, redness, and sensitivity of the penis can occur with radiation therapy. Tender, oozing patches of skin may occur in the treated area, and there may be some peeling of the skin. There may be a burning feeling with urination. Side effects tend to be worse a week or two after brachytherapy treatment but occur during treatment with external radiation therapy. Once treatment has been completed, side effects generally go away gradually.

Your doctor or nurse can advise you about other potential side effects and how to take care of yourself during radiation therapy.