Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Overview

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Treating Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma TOPICS

Radiation therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Radiation therapy is treatment with high energy rays (such as x-rays) or particles to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. Radiation given from a source outside the body (external beam radiation) is the kind most often used to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is more intense. Getting radiation treatment is painless and each treatment only takes a few minutes, although getting you ready takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.

Radiation might be used as the main treatment for lymphomas that are found early (stage I or II), because these tumors respond very well to radiation. For more advanced lymphomas and for some lymphomas that spread quickly, radiation is sometimes given after chemotherapy. Radiation can also be used to ease symptoms in organs such as the brain and spinal cord or to decrease pain when tumors are pressing on nerves.

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. Radiation can also be given in the form of a drug in some cases (see the section about immunotherapy for more details).

Possible side effects

Radiation can cause side effects, which can vary based on the area being treated. Common side effects include:

  • Skin changes ranging from mild redness to blistering and peeling
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Low blood counts
  • Upset stomach (more common if the radiation is to the belly)
  • Vomiting (more common if the radiation is to the belly)
  • Diarrhea (more common if the radiation is to the belly)

Often these problems go away after radiation is stopped.

If radiation is given with chemotherapy, the side effects tend to be worse.

Radiation can also cause long-term side effects. Ask your doctor what you can expect.

For more information about radiation therapy, see our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 08/27/2014
Last Revised: 01/22/2016