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Radiation Treatment for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

The goal of radiation is to use high-energy X-rays to kill lymphoma cells and shrink tumors.

In most cases, a machine directs radiation into your body from the outside. That's why it's called external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT). Radiation may also be given in the form of a drug that is injected into your blood. This is a type of internal radiation therapy known as radioimmunotherapy.

If you have stage I or stage II lymphoma, you may get radiation as your main (primary) treatment, often along with other treatments, such as chemotherapy. Radiation therapy may also be used as part of a stem cell transplant. For more advanced lymphoma, radiation therapy may be used to help ease symptoms.

Making the decision to have radiation treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

In some cases, radiation is useful for the treatment of lymphoma. Your doctor may recommend it for these reasons:

  • You have lymphoma in a specific body part, such as your stomach, brain, or skin. Radiation is particularly useful when lymphoma is isolated to one area in your body.

  • You have lymphoma that is localized to 1 or 2 lymph node groups on the same side of your abdomen. Your doctor may direct radiation to the area where the lymphoma is located, to nearby lymph nodes, or to all of the lymph system. Radiation is particularly useful when lymphoma is isolated to one area in your body. If the lymphoma is aggressive, other treatments may be used as well.

  • You are having pain or other symptoms due to growth of lymphoma in a specific place. Radiation can shrink a tumor pressing on the spinal cord, for instance. This may be considered a palliative treatment. That means it is treatment that helps control pain and improve quality of life. But it doesn’t cure the lymphoma.

  • You have decided to have a stem cell transplant. This may mean you need radiation. Radiation kills not only lymphoma cells, but also normal bone marrow cells. For a stem cell transplant, you may need total body irradiation (TBI). This type of treatment distributes radiation in equal doses to all parts of your body. It can reach lymphoma cells in several parts of your body. Another option is to use high-dose chemotherapy together with or instead of the radiation. Your doctor will talk with you about these options.

  • You have lymphoma that is no longer responding to treatment with chemotherapy or immunotherapy. Some types of lymphomas can be treated with radiation in the form of a drug. This type of internal radiation is known as radioimmunotherapy. When the drug is injected into the blood, it brings the radiation directly to the lymphoma cells.

What happens during radiation therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

If you're having treatment directed at just a small part of your body, you'll probably be able to have radiation as an outpatient. That means you can have it done at a hospital or clinic without having to spend the night. If you're preparing for a stem cell transplant, you will have the treatments as an inpatient, which means you'll have to stay in the hospital.

You get radiation in one of two ways:

  • External radiation from a machine outside the body, which is the most common type of radiation used for lymphoma

  • Internal radiation where radioactive material is placed inside you. For lymphoma, internal radiation can be given as a drug injected into the blood. This type of treatment, known as radioimmunotherapy, brings small doses of radiation directly to the cancer cells.

For external radiation, you will talk with a doctor who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer called a radiation oncologist. This doctor determines the type of radiation you need, the dose, and the treatment length. For radioimmunotherapy, you will likely need to see a nuclear medicine doctor or radiation oncologist. During your visit, ask what you can expect to feel during and after the treatment.


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