Radiation therapy for leukemia

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

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 of radiation are based on the specific leukemia diagnosis, including the type of leukemia and the patient's symptoms. Depending on the patient's individual needs, leukemia radiation treatments may be combined with other therapies, like targeted therapy and chemotherapy, to prevent the growth of new cancer cells.

During radiation treatment for leukemia, the patient's care team will monitor his or her blood counts regularly. If needed, the care team will provide therapies to stimulate blood cell production and/or antibiotics to prevent or treat infection.

Types of radiation therapy for leukemia

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 the care team 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.

Side effects of radiation therapy for leukemia

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 the patient's risk of infection. Some other potential side effects include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Skin irritation

If needed, the care team will provide therapies to stimulate the patient's blood cell production and/or antibiotics to prevent or treat infection. They may also suggest supportive care services intended to keep the patient strong to better tolerate treatments and maintain his or her quality of life.

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