Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Systemic radiation therapy

What is systemic radiation therapy?

Systemic radiation uses radioactive drugs called radiopharmaceuticals (ray-dee-o-farm-uh-SUIT-uh-kulls). These unsealed radiation sources are usually in the form of a liquid. Examples are strontium 89 and iodine 131. The radiopharmaceuticals may be given in a vein (IV) or taken by mouth. They travel throughout the body and collect where the cancer is. This is where they give off their radiation to kill the cancer cells.

The radiopharmaceuticals are kept in special containers that hold the radiation inside so it can’t affect others. You will likely be treated in a shielded room that also contains the radiation. The health professionals handling the drugs may wear safety gear that protects them from exposure while they are giving you the radioactive drug.

Will I be radioactive during or after systemic radiation treatment?

Because systemic radiation uses an unsealed radioactive substance that goes through your whole body, some radiation will be in your body for a few days until your body has had a chance to get rid of it. You may need to stay in the hospital for 1 or 2 days. Your health care team will tell you what precautions to take until your body no longer contains radiation that might affect others. These precautions vary depending on the substance used.

Patient and family safety

Sometimes doctors recommend certain safety measures to protect the people around you from the systemic radiation in your body. This is because the radioactive materials can leave your body through saliva, sweat, blood, and urine, making these fluids radioactive.

In most cases, the safety precautions must be followed only the first few days after treatment. Over time, the radiation becomes weaker and your body gets rid of it. Talk to the doctor or nurse about how long this may take in your case, and if there are special precautions you will need to take.

You might be told to follow these precautions for a certain amount of time:

  • Flush the toilet twice after each use, and wash your hands well after using the toilet.
  • Use separate utensils and towels (laundry may need to be washed separately).
  • Drink extra fluids to flush the radioactive material out of your body.
  • No kissing or sexual contact (often for at least a week).
  • Keep 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.
  • Limit your contact with infants, children, and women who are pregnant.
  • Limit your contact with pets.

Ask your health care team about the precautions you need to take. Be sure you understand what you need to do to protect the people around you.


Last Medical Review: 01/24/2013
Last Revised: 01/24/2013