Are cancer patients radioactive?

Some cancer patients who receive radiation therapy worry that their bodies will become “radioactive” after receiving radiation therapy. Their concern is that close physical contact with other people could expose them to radiation.

Are cancer patients radioactive?

Some cancer patients who receive radiation therapy worry that their bodies will become “radioactive” after receiving radiation therapy. Their concern is that close physical contact with other people could expose them to radiation. The radiation doesn't go far away from the treatment area. Therefore, it's usually safe to be with other people.

However, as a precautionary measure, you should avoid close contact with children and pregnant women for a period of time. The treatment team will give you specific advice in this regard. Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” uses special medications to reduce or kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy, or “radiation,” kills these cells with high-energy beams, such as X-rays or protons.

Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells. In most cases, radiation therapy uses x-rays, but protons or other types of energy can also be used. Some patients worry that undergoing radiation therapy may be harmful to other people because they are radioactive. For example, patients sometimes think they can't cuddle with their partner or hold a grandchild in their lap until after treatment.

However, most patients don't need to worry about being radioactive. The radiation oncology team will instruct patients who receive internal radiation on how long and in what situations it is OK for patients to be close to other people. Radiation therapy generates molecules called free radicals that kill cancer cells, and this process requires oxygen. For example, in rare circumstances, a new cancer (second primary cancer) may develop that is different from the first one treated with radiation years later.

As the radioactive material inside implants naturally decays over time, it emits radiation that deposits energy to treat nearby cancer cells. After the planning process, the radiation therapy team decides what type of radiation and what dose you will receive based on the type and stage of your cancer, your general health, and treatment goals. The two most common types of cancer treatment that concern patients and their families are chemotherapy and radiation therapy. If you are undergoing cancer treatment, you may be concerned about the effect chemotherapy and radiation may have on your loved ones and the people around you.

Radiation therapy is one of the most common and effective ways to kill cancer cells and reduce the size of tumors. Radiation oncologist Melissa Zinovoy (right) and chief radiation therapist Beeban Natt with a patient at MSK Westchester. They kill or reduce cancer cells anywhere in the body, not just where the first (primary) cancerous tumor originates. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are treatments for cancer, that is, the uncontrolled growth and spread of cells to surrounding tissues.

An example is the use of radioactive beads placed inside the prostate to deliver radiation therapy for prostate cancer. Getting a recommendation for radiation therapy as part of cancer treatment involves a learning curve and a lot of questions. Your ability to continue working will depend on your specific treatment, your general health condition, and whether you are also receiving other cancer treatments, but most patients who are working when they start radiation can continue to work for much of their treatment.