Radiation therapy for leukemia

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on May 26, 2022.

Radiation therapy for leukemia may be used to destroy leukemia cells, or to relieve pain or discomfort caused by an enlarged liver or spleen, or swollen lymph nodes. It may also help to treat pain from bone damage caused by leukemia cells growing in the bone marrow. Radiation therapy may also be given in low doses just before a stem cell transplant.

The area treated with radiation therapy and the dose given is based on your specific leukemia diagnosis, including the type of leukemia and your symptoms. Depending on your individual needs, your leukemia radiation treatments may be combined with other therapies, like targeted therapy and chemotherapy, to prevent the growth of new cancer cells.

During your radiation treatment for leukemia, your doctors will monitor your blood counts regularly. If needed, we’ll provide therapies to stimulate your blood cell production and/or antibiotics to prevent or treat infection. Examples of radiation therapies that may be used to treat leukemia include:

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is a common option for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and may help to reduce swelling in the lymph nodes, liver or spleen. EBRT is a fast, painless outpatient procedure. A typical radiation treatment lasts a few minutes.

Total body irradiation (TBI) often serves as part of the preparation process for leukemia patients who will undergo chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation. When used before a stem cell transplant, TBI treatment suppresses the immune system to help prevent the body from rejecting the donated stem cells. High doses of TBI may also help to destroy remaining leukemia cells in the body.

Total marrow irradiation (TMI) is a form of TBI. This radiation therapy allows us to deliver precisely focused radiation to the major marrow sites where the cancer cells reside. Marrow is the soft, sponge-like tissue found inside most bones. TMI is commonly used for leukemia patients undergoing stem cell transplantation. Using TomoTherapy®, TMI targets the radiation dosage to the skeletal bone structure, helping to improve recovery time and reduce radiation exposure to healthy organs.

The side effects of radiation therapy for leukemia depend on the treatment dose, the part of the body being radiated, the duration of radiation and other factors. Radiation may cause a drop in white blood cell count, which may increase your risk of infection. Some other potential side effects include fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite and skin irritation. If needed, we’ll provide therapies to stimulate your blood cell production and/or antibiotics to prevent or treat infection. We may also suggest supportive care services intended to keep you strong so you can better tolerate treatments and maintain your quality of life.

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