Skip to main content

Radiation Therapy for Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

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 outside of the bone marrow and blood, such as 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 (AML).
  • It is used (rarely) to help shrink a tumor (myeloid sarcoma) 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. This planning session, called simulation, usually includes getting imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans.

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 and hair loss 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).

More information about radiation therapy

To learn more about how radiation is used to treat cancer, see Radiation Therapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Larson RA. Induction therapy for acute myeloid leukemia in younger adults. UpToDate. 2018. Accessed at on June 20, 2018.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Acute Myeloid Leukemia. V.1.2018. Accessed at on June 20, 2018.

Last Revised: August 21, 2018

American Cancer Society Emails

Sign up to stay up-to-date with news, valuable information, and ways to get involved with the American Cancer Society.