Radiation therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Last medical review:

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. It is sometimes used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Your healthcare team will use what they know about the cancer and about your health to plan the type and amount of radiation, and when and how it is given. You may also receive other treatments.

You may have radiation therapy to:

  • prevent the spread of leukemia to the central nervous system (CNS)
  • prepare for a stem cell transplant (it is given to the entire body, which is called total body irradiation or TBI)
  • prevent or treat the spread of leukemia cells to the testicles or skin
  • relieve pain if the leukemia has spread to the bones

The CNS is the brain and spinal cord. Radiation to the brain is sometimes part of CNS prophylaxis, which is treatment given to stop leukemia cells from spreading to the CNS. Radiation may also be given to the brain if leukemia has already spread to the CNS. Radiation to the brain may be called cranial irradiation.

External radiation therapy

External radiation therapy is the type of radiation therapy used to treat ALL.

During external radiation therapy, a machine directs radiation through the skin to the cancer and some of the tissue around it. External radiation therapy is also called external beam radiation therapy.

Find out more about external radiation therapy.

Side effects

During radiation therapy, your healthcare team protects healthy cells in the treatment area as much as possible. Side effects of radiation therapy will depend mainly on the size of the area being treated, the specific area or organs being treated, the total dose of radiation and the treatment schedule. Tell your healthcare team if you have side effects or others you think might be from radiation therapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Side effects of radiation therapy for ALL depend on where the radiation is targeted on your body. Common side effects of radiation include fatigue and skin problems in the area of your body that received radiation, such as redness, itchiness, peeling.

Other possible side effects of radiation therapy used for ALL are:

Find out more about radiation therapy

Find out more about radiation therapy and side effects of radiation therapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about radiation therapy.

Expert review and references

  • Kareem Jamani, MD, LMCC, FRCPC
  • Goekbuget N, Hoelzer D . Diagnosis and Treatment of adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Wiernik PH, Goldman JM, Dutcher JP & Kyle RA (eds.). Neoplastic Diseases of the Blood. 5th ed. Springer; 2013: 20: pp. 331-354.
  • American Cancer Society . Treating Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) . 2021 : https://www.cancer.org/.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network . NCCN Guidelines for Patients: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia . 2021 : https://www.nccn.org/.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (Version 2.2021) . 2021: https://www.nccn.org/home.
  • Kebriaei P, Ravandi F, de Lima M, Champlin R. Management of acute leukemias. DeVita VT Jr., Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2019: 102:1742–1763..
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) . Cancer.net: Leukemia - Acute Lymphocytic - ALL. 2017 : https://www.cancer.net/.
  • Cancer Research UK. Radiotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). 2021: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/.

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