Radiation for Leukemia/Lymphoma: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 21, 2022

Chemotherapy is the primary treatment for leukemia and lymphoma. But in certain cases, such as with hodgkins or when leukemia presents certain complications, radiation is likely to be included in the treatment.

Radiation treatments damage cancer cells to kill them or make them grow and spread more slowly. Normal cells that are close by may also be harmed, but over time, they can usually heal.

For leukemia and lymphoma, doctors most often use external beam radiation. This uses a machine that aims streams of energy through your skin to the cancer. This treatment can:

How Long Does It Take?

External radiation is most often done as an outpatient, meaning you don't have to stay overnight at a hospital. Typically, you'll go to the treatment center once a day, 5 days a week. Weekend breaks give your normal cells a chance to recover. You may have to go for many weeks.

Your doctor will tell you what schedule your treatment plan will follow.

The treatments are a lot like getting an X-ray. They don't hurt, and they're fast. Each one may take up to 30 minutes. Most of this time will be spent setting up the machine and getting you into the right position so the energy beams hit the same spot every time.

What Happens

Your first visit will take longer because the doctor and the radiation therapist need to plan your treatments. Your doctor may use a CT scan or MRI to see where the tumor is in your body and clearly outline its shape. They may have the radiation therapist tattoo or mark small dots on your skin to help target the beams.

A big machine called a linac gives the radiation. It may click and make a whirring noise as it moves around you. It won't touch you, but it may shine lights to help the therapist line up with the dots to be sure the machine is sending radiation to the right place. The therapist may put shields on nearby parts of your body to help keep the radiation from reaching these areas to protect your normal cells.

The therapist will get you in place, control the machine, and give the treatment. They can't be in the room with you, but they can see, hear, and talk to you the whole time.

You don't have to hold your breath, but you will need to be very still. Custom-made molds or casts can help hold you in place during treatment.

Side Effects

Because normal cells will be affected by the radiation, too, you'll have some side effects. They'll depend on the part of your body that's treated, and your doctor can explain what's likely to happen to you.

Some of the more common side effects are:

  • Skin that looks sunburned, blisters, itches, or peels
  • Being extremely tired, even though you rest
  • Anemia
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Higher chance of infections
  • Upset stomach if beam is directed to the area

These tend to show up 2 or 3 weeks after treatment starts, and they may get worse. They will go away over time after treatment ends. You may be able to take steps to limit them, and treating side effects right away can help keep them from getting worse.

Be sure to tell your team about any changes you notice.

Long-Term Effects

Some side effects may show up many months or even years after treatment. For instance, radiation to your chest may lead to heart attacks, typically at a younger age than normal, and secondary cancers like sarcomas.

Based on where your radiation is given, your doctor will have a better idea of what long-term side effects are possible and what symptoms you should watch for. You can often get treatment for these effects, too.

Show Sources


American Society for Radiation Oncology: "How does radiation therapy work?" "Before Treatment," "During Treatment."

American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Understanding Radiation Therapy," "Leukemia - Chronic Lymphocytic - CLL: Treatment Options," "Leukemia - Acute Lymphocytic - ALL: Treatment Options," "Leukemia - Acute Myeloid - AML - Treatment Options," "What to Expect When Having Radiation Therapy," "Side Effects of Radiation Therapy."

American Cancer Society: "Radiation Therapy for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma," "External radiation therapy," "Common side effects of radiation therapy," "Long-term side effects of radiation therapy."

National Cancer Institute: "Radiation Therapy," "Late Side Effects of Cancer Treatment."

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