This page discusses the use of radiation therapy for the treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma. For a thorough review of radiation therapy for cancer treatment, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph .

Radiation therapy is the use of penetrating beams of high-energy waves or streams of particles called radiation to treat disease. Radiation therapy destroys the ability of cancer cells to grow and divide.

Indications for Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is used to treat Hodgkin’s disease. It is usually begun after three or four cycles of chemotherapy have been given.

Radiation therapy is considered a key treatment for early-stage disease. It may be the only type of therapy recommended. If you are not receiving chemotherapy, the doctors will locate all the cancerous sites and treat them and adjacent lymph nodes with a dose high enough to kill the tumor(s).

Radiation is often used for later-stage disease as well. But its benefit is less well established than with early-stage disease. Radiation also may be ordered to decrease symptoms, even if a cure is not likely.

Type of Radiation Therapy Used

External beam radiation is the type of radiation used to treat Hodgkin's disease. In external radiation therapy, rays are directed at the tumor from outside the body.

Doctors try to keep the dose and extent of radiation as small as possible to still be effective while reducing the risk of complications and injury to surrounding tissue. Therapy is given for four to six weeks on an outpatient basis. Each therapy session is short. Most patients are able to continue with their daily activities.

Effectiveness

Radiation for early-stage disease is associated with excellent survival rates. Greater than 90% of people with early-stage disease are still alive five years after diagnosis. Radiation may be given in combination with chemotherapy in more advanced cases. Its effectiveness in later stages is not well established.

Side Effects and Possible Complications

Most radiation-related side effects resolve once treatment has been completed. The most common effect is skin irritation or burning in the area that was radiated. This often resolves in a few weeks. If the abdomen is radiated, diarrhea or loose stools may occur during or shortly after the radiation. If the lung area is radiated, the lungs may become temporarily inflamed and shortness of breath or cough may occur. These complications can be treated with a short course of steroids and will resolves in a few weeks.

Herpes zoster (shingles) frequently develops within two years of starting therapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Shingles is a painful infection of the nerves and skin caused by the varicella zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Patients treated with radiation for Hodgkin’s disease are at risk for developing a second cancer for at least 30 years after completing therapy. Other life-threatening risks depend on the type of radiation. Radiation beams used to treat Hodgkin’s disease are directed at the neck and chest. These areas receive high doses of radiation, which can increase the risk of damage to vital organs, such as the heart. Young women treated with radiation for Hodgkin’s disease are at greater risk for developing breast cancer.

Post-treatment Care

Because patients treated for Hodgkin’s disease are at increased risk to develop other cancers in the future, it is important to take steps to decrease your risk or catch the new cancer in its early stages:

  • If you smoke, stop. Risk of lung cancer after treatment for Hodgkin’s is higher for smokers than nonsmokers. For information on quitting smoking, click here .
  • For women, have routine mammograms starting about seven years after Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment, if you do not already receive screening mammography .

For more information on radiation therapy, including how to manage the side effects, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph .