Is it safe to be around someone receiving radiation therapy: Precautions for radiotherapy

The truth about radiation therapy

The use of radiotherapy is one of the most effective and common methods of destroying cancer cells and shrinking tumours, but depending on what form of radiotherapy you are having, some precautions will need to be taken to ensure the safety of your family and friends. 

The cancer care team will follow all safety precautions every time you receive radiation therapy treatments. There are certain regulations that must be followed by these personnel to limit their exposure to radiation when they are in the radiation therapy area. Therefore, special clothing and protective equipment may be seen when they are in this area.

Types of radiation therapy and the precautions    

It is important to understand that not all radiotherapy treatments operate in the same way or are subject to the same safety precautions. Moreover, radiation therapy safety concerns are very different from those of other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy.

1. Radioembolization
This is a procedure that injects substances directly into an artery in the liver to block or reduce the blood flow to a tumour in the liver. The radiation travels a very short distance, meaning it mostly affects just the tumour. However, you may have to limit contact with other people for up to one week after treatment. It is especially important to avoid close contact with children and women who are pregnant.

2. External radiotherapy
External radiation is a lot like getting a regular x-ray. The treatment itself is painless, takes only a few minutes and only affects cells in your body for a moment. Because there’s no radiation source in your body, you are not radioactive at any time during or after treatment.

3. Internal Radiation (Brachytherapy)
Internal radiation therapy uses a sealed source of radiation that is implanted where the cancer is located. This process usually takes place inside an operating room in order to contain the radiation. Depending on the type of implant used, your body may give off a small amount of radiation for a short time.

Depending on the strength of the radiation and the size and location of the implant, you may need to stay in the hospital for a few days. If your implant is smaller, you may be able to go home after treatment, but you’ll likely have specific guidelines and precautions to follow.

4. Systemic Radiation Therapy
Systemic therapy involves treatment that travels through your entire body rather than being aimed at one area. The liquid drugs are made up of radioactive substances and can be given orally or put into your vein. Although these drugs travel through your whole body, they can find and collect in places where the cancer cells are located.

This type of therapy will leave radiation in your body for a few days and can leave your body through saliva, sweat, blood and urine. This can mean you may be in hospital for a few days and will need to take special precautions when you go home. 

Precautions after radiation therapy

Hospital Precautions 
  • You may be treated in a side room, away from the main ward for 1-2 days, with nurses & doctors only staying in your room for short periods of time. 
  • You will see staff wearing badges that monitor their exposure to radiation.
  • The nurses might use an instrument called a scintillation counter to monitor radiation levels in anything taken out of the room, such as bed linen.
  • If you have a radioactive drink, your urine might be slightly radioactive for a few days, meaning you need to wear gloves when you wipe. For men you may need to use the toilet while sitting down.
Home Precautions
  • Wash your laundry separately from the rest of the household, including towels and sheets.
  • Flush the toilet twice after each use, and wash your hands well after using the toilet.
  • Sit down when using the toilet.
  • Use separate utensils and towels.
  • Drink extra fluids to flush the radioactive material out of your body.
  • Avoid public transportation for a specific amount of time.
  • Plan to stay home from work, school, and other activities for a specific amount of time.

Is it safe to be around someone receiving radiation therapy?

You are only allowed to have a limited number of visitors, which can only stay for a short time, whilst keeping a distance from you at all times. The further away they are, the less exposure they have to the radiation. Children under 16 or pregnant women are not aloud to visit. Inside the home you might be told to sleep in a separate bed in a separate room for a specific number of nights and no kissing or sexual contact (often for at least a week). Lastly, avoid contact with pets for a specific amount of time. 

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. Always speak to your cancer care team about what precautions you should take. 

If you are having chemotherapy you may want to read our other blog - Chemotherapy Safety in the Home

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