Leukemia Treatment Radiation

Chemotherapy is the most common leukemia treatment. However, leukemia radiation therapy may supplement chemotherapy, or be used to relieve painful symptoms.

How Radiation Therapy Works

Radiation therapy uses the same type of radiation used in X-rays. The radiation damages the DNA within cells, preventing them from reproducing. Although leukemia radiation targets cancerous cells, healthy cells are also damaged during treatment.

Radiation Treatment for Leukemia

Acute leukemia can spread to the central nervous system and brain. Radiation therapy may be administered to avoid this complication, or to treat the central nervous system if the leukemia has already spread.

Chronic leukemia symptoms may include enlarged lymph nodes or an enlarged spleen. Swelling from the enlarged tissue can cause pain and discomfort. Radiation for leukemia relieves symptoms by killing cancerous cells in the affected tissue, reducing enlargement.

Treatment for leukemia can include stem cell or bone marrow transplants. Radiation therapy, combined with high-dose chemotherapy, may be used prior to stem cell transplants to kill cancerous cells. These treatments help prepare the body for a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant.

Leukemia Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Radiation therapy side effects depend on the:

  • Targeted area of the body
  • Level of radiation
  • Length of treatment.

Most radiation therapy side effects are temporary. Common side effects include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss around the radiation site
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin irritation.

While some people don’t ever develop side effects, others may experience long-term effects of radiation for leukemia months or years after treatment, including:

  • Cataracts
  • Damage to lungs and other internal organs
  • Growth delays in children
  • Increased risk of secondary leukemia if combined with chemotherapy
  • Infertility
  • Learning delays in children.

In general, the benefits of radiation therapy usually outweigh the possible side effects. Discuss any concerns about leukemia treatment side effects with your doctor prior to treatment.

Radiation Therapy: Treatment Process

Prior to radiation therapy, a patient undergoes a stimulation test to determine the best location for the radiation. Small dots, either in semi-permanent or permanent ink, may mark the area of the body radiation will affect. Although these dots can be removed after treatment, oncologists advise against this, since the targeted location may be necessary if the cancer returns.

If radiation therapy is used before stem cell transplantation, the entire body is irradiated. This is referred to as total body irradiation (TBI).

Actual radiation therapy is painless, although the patient is required to hold his body in position for several minutes, which can become uncomfortable. An average radiation therapy treatment lasts up to 30 minutes, but the body is only irradiated for a few minutes during this time.


American Cancer Society. (2009). Leukemia – chronic lymphocytic (CLL): Radiation therapy. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_4X_Radiation_Therapy_62.asp.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. (2009). Radiation therapy (radiotherapy). Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://www.leukemia-lymphoma.org/all_page.adp?item_id=9083.

National Marrow Donor Program. (n.d.). Radiation therapy for blood-related cancers. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://www.marrow.org/PATIENT/Undrstnd_Disease_Treat/Undrstnd_Treat_Opt/Lrn_Other_Treatment/Radiation/index.html.