Radiation therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Last medical review:

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. It is sometimes used to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

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 have radiation therapy to:

  • treat indolent (slow-growing) types of NHL
  • destroy cancer cells left behind after chemotherapy to reduce the risk that aggressive (fast-growing) types of NHL will come back (relapse)
  • prepare for a stem cell transplant
  • treat NHL that starts in or has spread to the brain or spinal cord (called the central nervous system, or CNS)
  • prevent NHL from spreading to the CNS
  • relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced NHL (called palliative therapy)

External radiation therapy is most commonly used to treat NHL.

External radiation therapy

During external radiation therapy, a machine directs radiation through the skin to specific areas of the body. External radiation therapy is also called external beam radiation therapy.

External radiation therapy may be used to treat very large lymph nodes or to target a specific area with cancer. It may also be given to the whole body (total body irradiation) to prepare for a stem cell transplant.

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 type of radiation, 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 that you think are from radiation therapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

These are common side effects of external radiation therapy for NHL:

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

  • Cancer Research UK. Radiotherapy Treatment. 2020: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment (PDQ®) – Patient Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2021: https://www.cancer.gov/.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®) – Health Professional Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2022: https://www.cancer.gov/.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Cancer.net: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. 2021: https://www.cancer.net/.
  • Cancer Research UK. Treatment Options. 2020: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/.
  • American Cancer Society. Treating Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma . 2018: https://www.cancer.org/.
  • Lymphoma Canada. Understanding NHL: A Patient's Guide to Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. 2020: www.lymphoma.ca.
  • Alberta Health Services. Clinical Practice Guideline: Lymphoma. Edmonton: 2019: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/.
  • Faber EA, Vose JM, Armitage JO, Bierman PJ . Diagnosis and treatment of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of adults. Wiernik PH, Goldman JM, Dutcher JP, Kyle RA (eds.). Neoplastic Diseases of the Blood. 5th ed. Springer; 2013: 47: 1027-1047.
  • Haas ML . Radiation therapy: toxicities and management. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 14: 312-351.
  • Manson SD & Porter C . Lymphomas. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 60: pp. 1458-1512.

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