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Radiation Therapy for Lymphoma and Leukemia


Treatment Overview

Radiation therapy is the use of high-dose X-rays to treat cancer cells that may remain after surgery, especially if all of the cancer cannot be removed. Radiation therapy is often used for the treatment of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), Hodgkin's lymphoma, and all types of leukemia. Radiation therapy may be used alone or in combination with other treatment options, such as chemotherapy.

For lymphoma or leukemia, radiation therapy may be given from a machine outside the body that directs radiation to the cancer (external radiation). Or it may be given inside the body (internal radiation), with radiation that is sealed inside of needles, seeds, wires, or catheters. The way radiation is given depends on the type and stage of cancer being treated.

What To Expect After Treatment

Side effects are common but generally go away when treatment is finished. They include:

  • Low blood counts, which may increase the risk of infection and bleeding.
  • Fatigue.
  • Redness and itching of the skin in the radiation field. The skin may look as though you have a bad sunburn.
  • Hair loss in the area inside the radiation field.
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea if the abdomen or pelvis is radiated.

Why It Is Done

When used during early-stage or nonaggressive NHL, radiation therapy is used to treat cells that may remain after surgery, especially if all of the cancer cannot be removed. Radiation may be used alone or in combination with other treatment options, such as chemotherapy. Radiation is also used for palliative care if chemotherapy is not working.

When used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), radiation therapy is usually given to relieve pain from either an enlarged spleen or lymph nodes.

Radiation therapy is used to help keep an acute leukemia from spreading to the central nervous system (CNS prophylaxis). It is also used to treat recurrent leukemia that has spread to the brain or spinal cord.

How Well It Works

For some stages of leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), radiation therapy works well when used alone. But it may be used in combination with chemotherapy, depending on the type and the stage of the cancer.

Risks

The short-term side effects of radiation therapy are common but usually get better and go away when treatments stop. These side effects depend on the area of the body affected by treatments and may include:

  • Low blood counts, which may increase your risk of infection or bleeding.
  • Redness and irritation in the mouth.
  • A dry mouth and difficulty in swallowing.
  • Changes in taste.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Fatigue.
  • Hair loss in the treatment area. Whether your hair grows back depends on the area treated, the dose of radiation, and the type of radiation used.
  • Irritation of the skin.

The long-term side effects of radiation therapy depend on what part of your body was treated, how much radiation you were given, and how long your treatment lasted. For example, radiation therapy to the pelvis may cause permanent sterility. Other long-term side effects may include brain changes, joint problems, lymphedema, mouth problems, and other cancers. These side effects depend on whether you also had chemotherapy.

What To Think About

Radiation therapy to the pelvis may cause permanent sterility. Discuss fertility options with your doctor before you begin pelvic radiation for NHL or CLL.

Unlike general radiation therapy, targeted radiation therapy uses monoclonal antibodies, which deliver radiation directly to the lymphoma cells.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF)Click here to view a form.(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerDouglas A. Stewart, MD - Medical Oncology
Last RevisedApril 19, 2010

eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

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