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Radiation Therapy Safety

Radiation Therapy Safety

Radiation therapy 101 - American Nurse

Doctors have safely and effectively used radiation therapy to treat cancer for more than 100 years.

Having radiation therapy slightly increases the risk of developing a second cancer. But for many people, radiation therapy eliminates the existing cancer. This benefit is greater than the small risk that the treatment could cause a new cancer in the future.

During external-beam radiation therapy, the patient does not become radioactive. And the radiation remains in the treatment room.

However, internal radiation therapy causes the patient to give off radiation. As a result, visitors should follow these safety measures:

  • Do not visit the patient if you are pregnant or younger than 18.
  • Stay at least 6 feet from the patient’s bed.
  • Limit your stay to 30 minutes or less each day.

Permanent implants remain radioactive after the patient leaves the hospital. Because of this, for 2 months, the patient should not have close or more than 5 minutes of contact with children or pregnant women.

Similarly, people who have had systemic radiation therapy should use safety precautions. For the first few days after treatment, take these safety measures:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the toilet.
  • Use separate utensils and towels.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to flush the remaining radioactive material from the body.
  • Avoid sexual contact.
  • Try to avoid contact with infants, children, and pregnant women

Some patients worry about the safety of radiation therapy. While radiation therapy involves exposure to hazardous radioactive particles, it has been used to safely treat cancer for more than 100 years. Many advancements have been made that have led to safety regulations and checkpoints during treatment. Treatment centers must follow certain rules and regulations to keep patients, workers, and visitors safe.

It’s important to remember that every patient is different, and your safety instructions may be different from other patients or people you know who have received radiation therapy to treat cancer. Any precautions you might need to take depend on what treatment is used and type and dose of radiation that’s given. If needed, your cancer care team will give you exact instructions so you know what steps to take, and how long any precautions need to be followed. You should follow their instructions exactly.

General radiation safety

A common abbreviation used by doctors and radiation experts is ALARA. ALARA stands for “as low as reasonably achievable.” This means that people should limit being exposed to radiation that has no benefit to them. Keep in mind that it’s impossible to avoid all radiation, and you can learn more in Sun and Other Types of Radiation.

For people who need radiation therapy to treat their cancer, special precautions are used to protect other parts of their body from exposure to radiation.

Before you begin receiving radiation therapy, the cancer care team works carefully to develop an effective treatment plan that is also safe. Treatment will focus on giving radiation to the cancer while limiting exposure of healthy tissue. Your treatment plan will be reviewed often during the time of your therapy, and computers are used to monitor you and the amount of radiation that’s being given.

Every time you have a radiation treatment, your cancer care team will follow all safety rules and will be sure that you receive your treatment safely by measuring and monitoring your dose. You may notice special clothing and protective equipment being used by the members of your cancer care team when they are in the area where radiation therapy is given. This is because they must meet certain regulations that help to limit their exposure to radiation when caring for patients who need treatment and imaging tests.  

It’s important to know that not all radiation treatments work the same way or have the same safety precautions. And, it’s important to know that safety concerns of radiation therapy are very different than safety concerns of other treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy.

Safety for specific types of radiation

External beam radiation therapy

External radiation therapy is given from an outside source, involves a beam of radiation aimed at a part of the body, and affects cells in your body only for a moment. Because there’s no radiation source inside your body, you are not radioactive at any time during or after treatment.

Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy)

Internal radiation therapy uses a sealed source of radiation that is implanted (put inside your body) where the cancer is located. Depending on the type of implant used, your body may give off a small amount of radiation for a short time.

The radiation usually doesn’t travel much farther than the area being treated, so the chances that others could be exposed to radiation is small. Still, you may be asked to stay in the hospital and might have to limit visitors during treatment. You also may be asked to stay a certain distance away from them. Pregnant women and children might not be allowed to visit you. If your implant is temporary, your body will no longer give off radiation once it is removed. If your implant is permanent, it will slowly stop giving off radiation after a while.  

Oral or systemic radiation treatment

Oral or systemic radiation uses an unsealed radioactive substance that goes through your whole body. Because of this, 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, and may need to take special precautions at home.

To protect others from radiation, the drugs are kept in special containers that hold the radiation inside, and you’ll be treated in a shielded room that also keeps the radiation inside. The health providers handling the drugs might wear safety gear that protects them from exposure while giving you the radioactive drug.


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