Radiation Therapy for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells.

When might radiation therapy be used for non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Radiation might be used to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in some different situations:

  • It can be used as the main treatment for some types of NHL 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.
  • Radiation therapy can 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.

How is radiation therapy given?

When radiation is used to treat NHL, 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.

Before your treatment starts, your radiation team will take careful measurements to find the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. This planning session, called simulation, usually includes getting imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans. 

Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer.

Radiation can also be given as a drug in some cases. (See Immunotherapy for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for more details.)

Possible side effects

The side effects of radiation therapy depend on where the radiation is aimed. Common side effects include: 

Nausea and diarrhea are more common if the abdomen (belly) is treated with radiation. 

Radiation given to several areas, especially after chemotherapy, can lower blood cell counts and increase the risk of infections.

Radiation to the head and neck area can lead to mouth sores and trouble swallowing. Some people later have problems with dry mouth.

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:

  • Radiation to the chest might damage the lungs 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. 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. 

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.

Freedman AS, Jacobson CA, Mauch P, Aster JC. Chapter 103: Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment. 2016. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/lymphoma/hp/adult-nhl-treatment-pdq on May 15, 2016.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphomas. Version 3.2016. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/nhl.pdf on May 11, 2016.

Roschewski MJ, Wilson WH. Chapter 106: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2014.

Last Medical Review: May 31, 2016 Last Revised: May 31, 2016

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