Radiation Therapy for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. This was once a very common treatment for children with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). But as doctors have developed more effective chemotherapy treatments, radiation therapy has been used less.

Radiation focused on a cancer from a source outside the body is called external beam radiation. This is the type of radiation therapy most often used to treat NHL. Before treatment starts, the radiation team takes careful 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 stronger. It is painless, but some younger children might still need to be sedated to help 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. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.

There are a few instances in which radiation therapy may be used.

  • Sometimes radiation is used along with chemotherapy, such as in patients where the lymphoma has reached the brain or spinal cord.
  • It may be used as a form of urgent treatment in children with symptoms caused by large tumors in the chest.
  • It may be used as part of treatment for children receiving high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant.
  • It can be used to relieve symptoms caused by lymphoma in internal organs, such when it is causing pain because it is pressing on nerves.

Possible risks and side effects of radiation therapy

Short-term side effects of radiation therapy depend on where the beams are aimed. It may cause sunburn-like skin problems or hair loss in the area being treated. Radiation therapy that includes large parts of the body can cause fatigue. Radiation of the abdomen can sometimes cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Often these effects go away after a short while.

Possible long-term side effects of radiation therapy in children can be more serious, and may occur after many years.

  • Radiation therapy to the chest may damage the lungs or heart, which could raise the risk of lung or heart problems later in life. In the long term, radiation to the chest may also increase the risk of lung cancer (especially in smokers) and of breast cancer.
  • Radiation therapy to the brain might cause headaches and problems such as memory loss, personality changes, and trouble learning at school.
  • Radiation to other parts of the body may slow a child’s growth or increase the risks for certain other cancers, such as those of muscle or bone (called sarcomas) or of the digestive tract.

Because of these possible long-term effects, doctors try to avoid using radiation therapy in children or limit the doses used whenever possible. For more on possible long-term effects, see Late and Long-term Effects of Treatment for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children.

More information can be found in 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: March 7, 2014 Last Revised: January 27, 2016

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