Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2021 | Last updated: November 2021
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. However, the doses are typically much higher and are directed to specific areas of the body.1
Radiation therapy may be used along with other drugs, like chemotherapy, to treat blood cancer. It may also be directed at the organs where the cancer has spread, including:2,3
- The spleen
- Certain lymph nodes
- The spinal cord
- The liver
How does radiation therapy work?
When radiation therapy is directed at the body, it damages the DNA of the cancer cells. This causes them to die. However, radiation may also damage healthy tissue around the cancer cells, which can cause side effects.1
Types of radiation therapy
Radiation therapy can be delivered in 2 ways:1,2
- External beam radiation therapy – In this method, radiation from a machine is directed at a specific spot on the body. Treatments are often given daily over several weeks. The exact number of sessions is determined by the type of blood cancer and the dose of radiation that will be given.
- Internal radiation therapy – In this method, radioactive material is placed inside the body at a specific location.
For blood cancer treatment, external beam radiation therapy is more common.1,2
Some people with blood cancer may receive systemic (treats the whole body) radiation therapy. This therapy may involve a monoclonal antibody. This is a type of targeted treatment that helps deliver the radioactive substance to the cancer cells. One example is a treatment regimen containing the drug Zevalin® (ibritumomab tiuxetan), which may be used to treat some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.1,4
What are the possible side effects of radiation therapy?
Side effects can vary depending on the specific treatment you are getting.
Short-term side effects may include:1
- Blistering or peeling of the skin
- 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 include:1
- Scar tissue at the area treated
- Damage to organs near the area treated (like the bowels)
- Fertility issues
- A second cancer
Systemic radiation therapy used along with certain treatment regimens may cause serious side effects, including:4
- Serious infusion reactions, such as severe allergic reactions that can cause trouble breathing
- Extended and severe decreases in blood cell counts
- Severe reactions to the skin, mouth, or nose
These are not all the possible side effects of radiation therapy. Talk to your doctor about what to expect or if you experience any changes that concern you during treatment with radiation therapy.
Things to know about radiation therapy
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about radiation therapy.
Before beginning treatment for blood cancer, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.