Hodgkin Disease Overview

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Treating Hodgkin Disease TOPICS

Radiation therapy for Hodgkin disease

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy for Hodgkin disease is given as a focused beam of radiation from a machine outside the body. This is called external beam radiation.

Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you or your child into place – usually takes longer. Radiation itself is painless, but some younger children may need to be sedated to make sure they don’t move during the treatment.

Radiation therapy is most useful when Hodgkin disease is only in one part of the body. Chemo is often given first, followed by radiation to areas that showed cancer. Radiation can also be used by itself to treat some cases of nodular lymphocyte predominant Hodgkin disease. If radiation is used, only the involved areas are treated with radiation to try to limit side effects.

People who are getting a stem cell transplant may get radiation to the whole body (known as total body irradiation) along with high-dose chemo to try to kill lymphoma cells throughout the body. To learn more, see the section “High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant for Hodgkin disease.

Possible side effects

The side effects of radiation therapy depend on where the radiation is aimed.

Short-term side effects: Some possible temporary effects include:

  • Skin changes like sunburn in the areas getting radiation
  • Feeling tired
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

Radiation given to several areas, especially after chemo, can lower blood cell counts and increase the risk of infections.

Long-term side effects: Radiation treatment can also have long-term side effects. The most serious of these is a higher risk of another cancer in the part of the body that was treated with radiation.

Radiation to the chest or neck can damage the thyroid gland, which can lead to tiredness and weight gain. Treatment with thyroid hormone pills can help with this.

Radiation to the chest also increases the risk of heart and lung problems, while radiation to the neck may increase the risk of stroke many years later.

In children, another possible side effect is slow bone growth. This could lead to shortened height, or even bone deformities. Doctors use as little radiation as they can in children.

To reduce the risk of side effects, doctors carefully figure out the exact dose of radiation needed and aim the beam to hit the cancer and limit damage to nearby normal tissues.

For more on long-term side effects, see the section “Moving on after treatment for Hodgkin disease.”

To learn more about radiation therapy, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 08/19/2014
Last Revised: 01/13/2015