Radiation Therapy Principles

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Safety for the patient and family

People who get any type of radiation therapy often worry the radiation poses a risk to themselves or to others around them.

If you get external beam radiation therapy, you are NOT radioactive and do not need to take special precautions to protect others from radiation. Treatments are given in special rooms that contain the radiation. The radiation therapist is not in the room during the treatment but can see you and talk with you over an intercom the whole time.

If you are given a radiopharmaceutical treatment such as radioactive iodine, it will leave your body within a few weeks, mainly through your urine, but also through saliva, sweat, and stool. To reduce the exposure of others, you will be asked to follow some basic instructions for the first few days after treatment. Your health care team will tell you about specific precautions, which could include:

  • Flushing the toilet 2 to 3 times after each use
  • Washing hands often with plenty of soap and water, especially after using the toilet
  • Using regular eating utensils (rather than disposables), not sharing them with others, and washing them carefully after each use
  • Flushing used tissues and paper napkins rather than throwing in the trash
  • Drinking plenty of fluids to help flush the radioactive substance from your body
  • No kissing or sexual contact for at least a week
  • Sleeping in a separate bed
  • Showering every day
  • Keeping a distance of one arm’s length between yourself and any others who spend more than 2 hours next to you in any 24-hour period
  • Avoiding prolonged close contact with infants, children, pregnant women, and even pets
  • Avoiding pregnancy or breastfeeding for a certain length of time, which will depend on the type of treatment used

For a temporary internal radiation implant, you will need to take special precautions only while the implant is in place to avoid exposing others to radiation. With this type of radiation, body fluids such as urine, sweat, blood or stool are usually not radioactive and probably will not need special handling. Your health care team will give you more specific instructions.

If you need to stay in the hospital while you are getting temporary internal radiation therapy, you will most likely be in a private room. Although the nurses and other people caring for you will not be able to spend a long time in your room, they will give you all of the care you need. There will also be limits on visitors while your implant is in place. As a precaution, most hospitals do not let pregnant women or children younger than 18 visit patients who have a radiation implant. Visitors need to check with the staff before they come in. They may be asked to stay at least 6 feet from your bed and stay for less than 30 minutes each day.

Permanent implants use weaker radiation, and patients can usually go home after the implant procedure. If you have permanent implants, such as seed implants, you may need to avoid close contact with other people for the first few days while the radiation is most active. The implant will lose energy each day. For a few weeks or months after the implant, you may be told not to have daily close contact with pregnant women or children for more than just a few minutes. Use of a condom during sex is often recommended for a short time. Ask your health care team about any special precautions you need to use at home.

Last Medical Review: 10/23/2013
Last Revised: 10/23/2013