Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells.
When radiation is used to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma, it’s most often done with a carefully focused beam of radiation, delivered from a machine outside the body. This is known as external beam radiation. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is more intense. The procedure itself is painless. Before the treatments start, the radiation team determines the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.
Radiation can also be given as a drug in some cases (see the section “Immunotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma” for more details).
Radiation might be used as the main treatment for some types of lymphoma if they are found early (stage I or II), because these tumors respond very well to radiation. For more advanced lymphomas and for some lymphomas that are more aggressive, radiation is sometimes used along with chemotherapy.
People who are getting a stem cell transplant may get radiation to the whole body along with high-dose chemotherapy, to try to kill lymphoma cells throughout the body. For more information, see the section “High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”
Radiation therapy can also be used to ease (palliate) symptoms caused by lymphoma that has spread to internal organs, such as the brain or spinal cord, or when a tumor is causing pain because it’s pressing on nerves.
Possible side effects
The side effects of radiation therapy depend on where the radiation is aimed. Common side effects include:
- Skin changes similar to sunburn
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Lower blood cell counts
Nausea and diarrhea are more common if the abdomen (belly) is treated with radiation.
Low blood cell counts can lead to problems with:
- Fatigue and weakness (from anemia – too few red blood cells)
- Increased risk of infection (from having too few white blood cells)
- Problems with excess bleeding and easy bruising (from thrombocytopenia – having low platelet counts)
Radiation to the head and neck area can lead to mouth sores and trouble swallowing. Some patients later have problems with dry mouth.
Radiation to the chest can lead to irritation of the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach). This can lead to pain swallowing and trouble eating.
Often these effects go away shortly after treatment is finished.
Side effects tend to be worse if radiation and chemotherapy are given together.
Possible long-term side effects of radiation therapy can be more serious.
- Chest radiation therapy may cause lung damage and lead to trouble breathing. It can also affect the heart, making you more likely to have a heart attack later on.
- Radiation to the neck can lead to thyroid problems later in life. This can lead to fatigue and weight gain and is treated with pills containing thyroid hormone. Radiation to the neck may also increase the risk of stroke many years later.
- Side effects of brain radiation therapy usually become most serious 1 or 2 years after treatment and may include headaches and problems such as memory loss, personality changes, and trouble concentrating.
- Other types of cancer can form in the area that received radiation. For example, radiation to the chest may increase the risk of lung cancer (especially in smokers) and of breast cancer. This happens rarely.
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 Revised: 01/22/2016