Leukemia--Acute Myeloid (Myelogenous)

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Treating Leukemia - Acute Myeloid (AML) TOPICS

Radiation therapy for acute myeloid leukemia

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is usually not part of the main treatment for people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but it is used in certain situations.

There are a few instances in which radiation therapy may be used to help treat leukemia:

  • Radiation is sometimes used to treat leukemia that has spread to the brain and spinal fluid or to the testicles.
  • Radiation to the whole body is often an important part of treatment before a bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell transplant (see the section, “Stem cell transplant for acute myeloid leukemia”).
  • It is used (rarely) to help shrink a tumor if it is pressing on the trachea (windpipe) and causing breathing problems. But chemotherapy is often used instead, as it may work more quickly.
  • Radiation can also be used to reduce pain in an area of bone that is invaded by leukemia, if chemotherapy hasn’t helped.

External beam radiation therapy, in which a machine delivers a beam of radiation to a specific part of the body, is the type of radiation used most often for AML. Before your treatment starts, the radiation team will take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. Radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is more intense. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time − getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer.

The possible side effects of radiation therapy depend on where the radiation is aimed. Sunburn-like skin changes in the treated area are possible. Radiation to the head and neck area can lead to mouth sores and trouble swallowing Radiation to the abdomen can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Radiation can lower blood counts, leading to fatigue (from low red blood cell counts) and an increased risk of infection (from low white blood cell counts).

More information on radiation therapy can be found in the radiation section of our website, or in our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 07/24/2013
Last Revised: 02/07/2014