Childhood Leukemia Overview

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Treating Leukemia in Children TOPICS

Radiation treatment for childhood leukemia

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. For children with acute leukemia, radiation might be used to try to prevent or treat cancer in the brain or in the testicles. It can also be used, though rarely, to shrink a tumor that is pressing on the windpipe. But chemotherapy is often used instead since it may work faster.

Radiation to the whole body is often an important part of treatment before a stem cell transplant (see the section, “High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant for childhood leukemia”).

Radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The procedure itself is painless, but some younger children might 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.

The possible short-term side effects depend on where the radiation is aimed. It can cause sunburn-like skin changes and hair loss in the treated area. Radiation to the belly (abdomen) can sometimes cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Radiation to large parts of the body can cause fatigue and an increased risk of infection.

Longer-term side effects are also possible and are described in the section “Long-term effects of treatment for childhood leukemia.”

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: 11/11/2013
Last Revised: 02/03/2014