Radiation Therapy for Multiple Myeloma

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on September 05, 2022
3 min read

Radiation therapy can ease the pain caused by multiple myeloma’s damage to your bones. It may also be used with other treatments to help you fight the disease. 

It’s not a cancer cure, but it is a treatment you’ll try along with drugs, surgery, or a stem cell transplant.

Cancer drugs may not work well enough to fight your myeloma. If so, your doctor can aim a beam of radiation at a cluster of cancer cells to kill them. This treatment can also work on damaged bone to ease your pain.

But pain isn’t the only sign that myeloma is harming your bones. Cancer cells may damage your spine and cause its small bones to collapse. The cells can also press on your spinal cord and nerves.

If you have these sudden symptoms, you may need emergency radiation treatment on your spine:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness in your legs
  • Problems urinating or controlling your bowel movements

After radiation destroys your myeloma cells, your bone should grow back in that spot. With new, stronger bone, you should have less pain and a lower risk of a break.

This is the most common type of radiation used to treat multiple myeloma. You may hear it called EBRT. A doctor called a radiation oncologist will create your treatment plan.

Usually, you’ll need a series of these treatments. That will last for several days or weeks. A radiation therapist will treat you at the hospital or a clinic.

You’ll be put under a large device that looks like an X-ray machine. The therapist will aim a beam of radiation right where your bone’s been damaged or where a tumor is. Radiation attacks the genes in the cancer cells. This either kills the cells or doesn’t let new cells grow and spread your myeloma.

An EBRT beam can go right through skin and tissues to reach the spot that needs treatment.

If your myeloma has spread, you may need total body irradiation. Your doctor may call it TBI. This would happen in the hospital, and you’d have to stay there for a few days.

TBI can kill cancer cells all over your body. Your therapist can aim it at large areas in a series of treatments, usually during a few days. It’s given in conjunction with a stem cell transplant in which cancerous cells in the bone marrow are killed and replaced with healthy cells. Marrow is a soft, spongy tissue inside your bones.

Radiation beams are aimed at your whole body to help slow down your immune system. This will make sure you don’t reject your new stem cells.

The treatment can harm healthy tissue or organs, especially your lungs. Your therapist will use blocks to protect you.

Because radiation can also harm your skin, muscles, or other tissues, it can cause you to feel sick or have other side effects.

After your radiation treatment, you may have:

  • Red or peeling skin, blisters, or sensitive skin in the spot where radiation is beamed
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea (if you’re getting radiation aimed at your belly)
  • Loss of hair in the treatment area
  • Low blood cells

Your side effects should go away soon after your radiation treatments are done.

Radiation can help when a tumor is pressing on your spinal cord. It’s also used to treat bone pain due to a tumor. In one study of about 500 people with multiple myeloma, 55 people got radiation for treatment of pain. Of that number, 75% reported that it helped ease their pain.