undergoing treatment for cancer, you know that the medicines and
procedures have side effects. You may worry that these lifesaving
treatments could somehow be harmful to your loved ones. It’s a concern
that many cancer patients and their family members often have, says cancer care
nurse Josette Snyder, BSN, MSN, AOCN.
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The two most common types of cancer treatment that patients and their family members worry about are chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Here Snyder explains what you and your loved ones need to know about each.
Radiation and radioactivity
patients who receive radiation therapy worry that their bodies will become
“radioactive” after they receive radiation treatment. Their
concern is that close physical contact with others could expose them to
answer to this concern is that physical contact is fine,” Snyder says. However,
there are some exceptions.
exceptions usually have to do with whether a person is receiving external or
radiation is when the radiation comes from a source outside the body, she
explains. “A special device sends strong beams of energy to cancer
cells to kill them or keep them from growing and dividing,” she says. “Small
doses of radiation may be administered daily over a period ranging from several
days to several weeks. The treated tissue does not continue to hold the
radiation after the therapy session ends. So patients receiving external
beam radiation need not worry about transmitting radiation to their loved
Internal radiation means that the radiation source is put into the body, Snyder says. Some examples of internal radiation are brachytherapy, in which doctors implant a seed, ribbon or wire that contains radiation in or around a tumor, the implant emits a dose of radiation to the surrounding area that kills cancer cells. Another example of internal radiation is radioactive iodine that is swallowed for treatment of certain thyroid conditions.
When a patient is treated with internal radiation, the radiation source may be left in the body for a short time and then removed before the patient leaves the treatment facility. If this is the case, the treated tissue does not hold the radiation, and so contact with others is not a problem, Snyder says.
situation is slightly different with internal radiation. “If you have implanted
radiation, your health care team likely will give you advice about close
physical contact for the next few months,” she says. “Much depends on the type
of cancer being treated.”
radiation source is left in place, the amount of radiation lessens over time.
However, the possibility of exposure to others is present.
radiation oncology team will instruct patients who receive internal radiation
about how long and in what situations it is OK for patients to be near others.
example, there may be no problem with sitting next to the person who is driving
you home from the treatment appointment during which radioactive seeds
were implanted to treat prostate cancer,” she says. “But you would not hold a
child, puppy or kitten under a year old on your lap, or hug a pregnant woman
for at least two months after the seeds have been implanted.”
Your healthcare team will advise you on the specifics. Be sure to ask your team if you have any particular concerns or are unsure.
some patients wonder whether it’s safe to have close physical contact with
another person while they are receiving chemotherapy.
talk about being safe with chemotherapy patients, we really are talking
about exposure to the chemotherapy medication,” she says. For the
most part, after a patient receives chemotherapy, the medications stay in the
patient’s body for about 24 hours to 48 hours.
The body clears itself of the medications through body fluids such as urine or stool, so this means avoiding contact with these body fluids. If you are cleaning up the body fluids of a chemotherapy patient, wear gloves and wash your hands afterward, she advises.
more intimate physical contact is perfectly fine. Male chemo patients, however,
should use a condom for the first 48 hours after a chemo treatment, she notes.