Radiotherapy is used to destroy cancer cells using high energy rays while damaging normal tissues as little as possible. It is not a common leukaemia treatment but may be used in the following ways.

Cranial radiotherapy in ALL
Radiotherapy may be given to the heads of people with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), to prevent the spread of leukaemic cells to the brain. This is because most chemotherapy doesn't reach the brain. The only way of getting chemotherapy to the brain is to inject it into the spine (intrathecal chemotherapy) (see ‘Chemotherapy and how it is given’), and some people have this instead of, or as well as, cranial radiotherapy.

The number of doses of cranial radiotherapy varies between individuals. Kerry said she had two sessions a week for four weeks. Elaine had it on three days only. Each session lasts only a few minutes and is painless. A clear Perspex mould may be fitted over the head to hold it still, while the radiotherapy is given.

Cranial radiotherapy causes side effects such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting, and tiredness (see ‘Unwanted effects of treatments’).

Total body irradiation (TBI)
Radiotherapy may be given to the whole body as part of preparation for a stem cell or bone marrow transplant (see ‘Stem cell or bone marrow transplants’). TBI involved attending the radiotherapy department twice a day for 3, 4 or 5 days. People had to sit, stand or lie in a certain position and remain still while receiving the radiotherapy. Although it was quick and painless the experience could be unsettling or nerve-racking. Some people had to travel to a different part of the hospital for the radiotherapy and found the commute tiring. Aley walked despite being offered a wheelchair. Some went to a different hospital for TBI and were given a bed there. Ian’s wife stayed at the hospital with him as it was quite a distance from where they lived.

Last reviewed: December 2018.

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