Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): Radiation Therapy 

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a treatment for cancer that uses high-energy X-rays. A machine directs the rays of energy to the area of cancer. Radiation therapy is also called radiotherapy. Its goal is to kill or shrink cancer cells.

When is radiation therapy used for CLL?

Radiation therapy is usually not part of the main treatment for people with CLL. But it may be used in certain cases. Your doctor may advise radiation therapy for these reasons:

  • You need radiation to help manage symptoms. For example, you may have a swollen spleen pressing against another organ, such as your stomach. This can cause a lack of appetite. In this case, radiation can be used to reduce swelling. Also, radiation can help with bone pain caused by growth of leukemia cells in bone marrow.

  • You have decided to have a stem cell transplant. This is rarely done for CLL, but may be used in certain cases. Radiation therapy kills not only leukemia cells, but also normal bone marrow cells. This helps prevent the rejection of stem cell transplants. If you need to have a transplant, you may have total body irradiation. This sends radiation in equal doses to all parts of your body.

How is radiation therapy given?

Radiation treatments are not painful. They are a lot like getting an X-ray. For each treatment you may be in the radiation room for 20 minutes to 30 minutes, but the treatment itself could take just a few minutes. You can have the treatments either as an outpatient or as an inpatient. Outpatient means you go home the same day. Inpatient means you stay overnight in the hospital. If you're having treatment directed at just a small part of your body, you'll likely do this as an outpatient. If you're preparing for a stem cell transplant, you will have the treatments as an inpatient.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

Radiation therapy can kill cancer cells, but it can also damage nearby normal cells. This can lead to side effects. The side effects from radiation therapy depend on where the radiation is aimed, and can include:

  • Skin irritation in the area being treated

  • Feeling tired

  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, from radiation to the abdomen

Working with your healthcare provider

Talk with your healthcare providers about what symptoms to watch for, and when to call them. Make sure you know what number to call with questions, even on evenings and weekends.

It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down any changes you notice, how severe they are, and when they happen. A written list can make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your next appointment. It can also make it easier for you to work with your medical team to make a plan to manage your side effects.