Radiation Therapy for Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. It is usually not part of the main treatment for people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but there are a few instances in which it may be used:

  • 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 stem cell transplant (see 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 often works more quickly.
  • Radiation can be used to reduce pain in an area of bone that is invaded by leukemia, if chemotherapy hasn’t helped.

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. The type of radiation therapy used to treat AML is called external beam radiation. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is much stronger. The procedure itself is painless. The number of treatments you get depends on the reason radiation therapy is being used. 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), bleeding or bruising (from low platelet counts), and an increased risk of infection (from low white blood cell counts).

To learn more about radiation therapy, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: December 9, 2014 Last Revised: February 22, 2016

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