Exposure to Radiation Cancer Treatments

Expert Q&A

A mother with cancer holding her daughter.
Most forms of cancer treatments don't pose any risk to family members. Photo by Christopher Futcher/Getty Images

Question. Can a child who lives in a house with a patient that is receiving external radiation for lung cancer be affected in anyway, and if so, how could it harm him? Jennifer, Tulsa, OK

Answer. No, your child can not be harmed by being around or living with someone that is receiving external radiation or any other treatment for lung cancer. The National Cancer Institute states that 'external radiation treatment does not make you radioactive.'

Radiation Cancer Treatments

Patients receiving temporary internal radiation can sometimes send 'its high energy rays outside' their body, and so that kind of cancer treatment is usually done in the hospital in a private room, at least 'for a few days while the radiation is most active.' And children under age 18 and pregnant women are usually not allowed to visit them in the hospital.

Internal radiation therapy might be used for people with prostate cancer and some types of breast cancer, etc.

Systemic radiation is another type of radiation therapy for cancer. Unlike the radioactive pellets that are surgically implanted with internal radiation therapy, with systemic radiation, they get an injection or swallow a radioactive substance, like radioactive iodine for thyroid cancer, to treat their cancer. While being treated, their bodily fluids can be radioactive.

Exposure to Radiation Cancer Treatments

In general, the potential risks of radiation exposure include:

  • no risk from external radiation treatments
  • some risk from temporary internal radiation treatments, which is why these treatments are often done in a hospital in a shielded room
  • some risk from permanent internal radiation treatments, at least for the first few days or weeks of treatment, which is why contact with pregnant women and young children might be restricted
  • some risk from systemic radiation treatments, which is why contact with pregnant women and young children might be restricted

And remember that there are no risks to contacts from any chemotherapy you are receiving.

Risks of Radiation Cancer Treatments

Your family member's oncologist should give you specific details about any restrictions because of their radiation treatment.

In fact, your child likely poses much more of a risk to the person being treated for cancer.

Persons being treated for cancer often have weakened immune systems and so are very susceptible to any infections. So if your child has a cold or the flu, he could be contagious and put the cancer patient at risk of getting sick. According to the American Cancer Society, that makes 'basic handwashing and hygiene practices for the patient and those they come in contact with' very important.

It also makes it important that your child stay up-to-date on all of his vaccines.

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