What are radiation tattoos?
Tattoo markings that are used for radiation therapy are very small (around 1 millimeter), about the size of a freckle or the head of a pin. They are necessary so the radiation therapist can precisely pinpoint the area needing treatment. These permanent markings are crucial for ensuring the accurate targeting of the tumor area. It also allows the technician to line up the treatment fields quicker making each of your treatment sessions run more smoothly.
Most cancer centers are using tattoo markers, but some may be using a Magic Marker line. Tattoos are much more precise than a Magic Marker line. During the course of treatment, a tattoo allows you to take showers and go swimming without worrying about losing the marks that guide your radiation to the most critical spots.
What do the tattoos look like?
The tattoos are created by placing a drop of dark blue or black India ink on the skin and then using a sterilized needle to implant a bit of the ink within the skin layer. The process feels like a pinprick, much less painful than when you have blood drawn. Each tattoo is often smaller than a freckle, which, in most cases, would not be seen by anyone other than the patient who knows that they are there or the therapist.
Will getting the tattoos hurt?
Yes, there is a small amount of pain involved. It is minimal however compared with other needle sticks. The therapist uses the smallest needle she can to lift the top layer of the skin only and places a drop of ink under it. There is no deep penetration of the skin or body involved.
Are the tattoos permanent?
Yes, they are. These tattoos provide a very positive tool in the treatment of cancer. During treatment they are necessary so the radiation therapist can precisely pinpoint the area needing treatment. After treatment they provide a history of the patient's treatment areas to future healthcare providers. Whenever there is a risk for recurrence of the cancer the tattoos should be left in place. If the same tissue is irradiated, thickening of the skin and scarring could result.