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Having radiotherapy for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)

Radiotherapy uses high energy waves similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells.

Why you might have it

Radiotherapy is not commonly used for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). But there are a few reasons why you might have this type of treatment. 

Enlarged spleen

Your specialist might suggest you have your spleen removed if it is enlarged and causing you pain or making you uncomfortable. If there is any reason why you can't have surgery, you might have radiotherapy to help shrink your spleen and reduce symptoms.

You usually have treatment 3 times a week. This works well for most people.  If your spleen gets bigger again you might be able to have more radiotherapy.

The radiotherapy to your spleen could also help to control your leukaemia. It can be helpful if the leukaemia is making your red blood cell and platelet counts drop. The radiotherapy stops the spleen from destroying healthy blood cells. 

It is likely that you would have treatment to your spleen if chemotherapy is no longer controlling your CLL.

Bulky lymph nodes

Your doctor might suggest radiotherapy if you have very swollen lymph nodes.  The radiotherapy will shrink the nodes.

You are only likely to have this if chemotherapy is no longer controlling your CLL very well.

There are different ways of having radiotherapy to swollen lymph nodes. You might have daily treatment for 2 weeks or less.Or you might have your radiotherapy 1 to 3 times a week.

Bone pain

You can have radiotherapy for bone pain. Some people whose CLL has changed (transformed) into a high grade disease have bone pain.

Bone pain happens because there are too many leukaemia cells in the bone marrow, causing pressure on nerves and causing pain.

Before treatment

You have a planning session which lasts around 90 minutes.

Having radiotherapy

Radiotherapy machines are very big. The machine may be fixed in one position or be able to rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. Before your first treatment your radiographers will explain what you will see and hear. The treatment rooms usually have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music.

You can't feel radiotherapy when you actually have the treatment. It takes anything between 10 to 30 minutes. It is important to lie in the same position each time, so the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready.

Photograph of a radiotherapy machine which is used to give external radiotherapy.

You won't be radioactive

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive. It's safe to be with other people throughout your course of treatment.

Side effects of radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can cause a skin reaction, similar to sunburn in the treatment area. And you get tired as you go through a course of treatment. These may be the only side effects you have. The side effects may be mild, depending on how much treatment you have. Other possible side effects depend on the area of the body having the radiotherapy. 

If you have radiotherapy to your spleen, you may feel sick, as well as tired. Your blood cell counts may fall afterwards. But these usually recover quite quickly. Side effects are not usually severe because you have a low dose of radiation and a short course of treatment.

Last reviewed: 
07 Oct 2020
Next review due: 
07 Oct 2023
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