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Radiation Therapy for Lymphoma and Leukemia

Treatment Overview

Radiation therapy is the use of high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells. 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.

Radiation may be given in different ways. For lymphoma or leukemia, the way radiation is given depends on the type and stage of cancer being treated.

  • With external radiation, X-rays from a machine are aimed at the part of the body with the cancer.
  • With targeted radiation, monoclonal antibodies are injected into the blood and deliver radiation directly to the cancer cells. This is done by making a medicine in which a radioactive form of an element (such as iodine) is attached to a monoclonal antibody.
  • With whole-body radiation, the entire body gets radiation. This may be done if a person is getting a stem cell transplant.

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 belly or pelvis is radiated.

Why It Is Done

For non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), 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.


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 trouble 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.


Current as of:
December 17, 2020

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Brian Leber MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology