Radiation therapy is a type of treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may use the same type of radiation that is used in x-rays, but the doses are typically much higher and are directed to specific areas of the body.1
Radiation therapy may be used in combination with other medications, like chemotherapy, to treat blood cancer. It may also be directed at the organs where the cancer has spread, including the spleen, certain lymph nodes, the spinal cord, or the liver.2,3
Types of radiation therapy
Radiation therapy can be delivered in two ways: external beam radiation therapy (where radiation from a machine is directed at a specific spot on the body) or internal radiation therapy (where radioactive material is placed inside the body at a particular location). For blood cancer treatment, external beam radiation therapy is more common.1,2
How radiation therapy works
When radiation therapy is directed at the body, it damages the DNA of the cancer cells, causing them to die. Unfortunately, radiation may also cause some damage to the healthy tissue around the cancer cells, potentially causing side effects.1
How radiation therapy is given
For external beam radiation therapy, treatments are often given daily over several weeks. The exact number of sessions are determined by the type of blood cancer and the dose of radiation that will be given.1
Some people with blood cancer may receive systemic (treats the whole body) radiation therapy. Systemic radiation therapy may involve a monoclonal antibody (a type of targeted treatment) that helps deliver the radioactive substance to the cancer cells. One example of systemic radiation therapy is a treatment regimen containing the drug ibritumomab tiuxetan (brand name: Zevalin®), which may be used to treat certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.1,4
Common side effects of radiation therapy
Radiation therapy can cause both short-term and long-term side effects. Each person is unique and not everyone experiences side effects the same way, or to the same level of severity.1
The short-term side effects may include redness, blistering or peeling of the skin, fatigue, or hair loss where the radiation therapy is directed. Most short-term side effects tend to go away after treatment is finished.1
Long-term side effects may not develop until years after treatment has finished. Possible long-term side effects from radiation therapy may include scar tissue at the area treated, damage to organs near the area treated (like the bowels), fertility issues, or a second cancer. The possibility of experiencing long-term side effects from radiation depend on several factors, including the general health of the patient and other treatments (like chemotherapy) that the individual is receiving.1
Systemic radiation therapy in combination with certain treatment regimens may potentially result in serious side effects, including serious infusion reactions (a severe allergic reaction that can cause trouble breathing), extended and severe decreases in blood cell counts, and severe reactions to the skin or mucous membranes (like the mouth or nose).4
Patients should talk to their doctor if they have any questions, or if they have questions regarding their radiation therapy regimen. Before starting treatment with radiation therapy, patients should tell their doctor about all their health conditions, as well as any medications (prescription and over-the-counter), herbal supplements, and vitamins they are taking.
These are not all the possible side effects of radiation. Patients should talk to their doctor about what to expect with treatment with radiation.