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Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. It is not always needed to treat leukemia, but it can be used in different situations:

  • It is sometimes used to try to prevent or treat the spread of leukemia to the brain or treat the testicles if they are involved by leukemia cells.
  • It can be used (rarely) to treat a tumor that is pressing on the trachea (windpipe). But chemotherapy is often used instead, as it may work more quickly.
  • 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 “High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant”).

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 childhood leukemia. Before treatment starts, the radiation team will take careful body measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation.

The treatment itself is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is more intense. It is painless, but some younger children may need to be sedated to make sure they don’t move during the treatment. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting your child into place for treatment – usually takes longer.

Possible side effects of radiation

The possible short-term side effects depend on where the radiation is aimed. Sunburn-like skin changes and hair loss in the treated area are possible. Radiation to the abdomen can sometimes cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. For radiation that includes large parts of the body, the effects may include fatigue and an increased risk of infection.

Longer-term side effects are also possible and are described in the section “What happens after treatment for childhood leukemia?

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

Last Medical Review: 04/17/2015
Last Revised: 02/03/2016