Facing radiation without fear


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Michael Folkert, M.D., Ph.D., is a radiation oncologist and brachytherapy specialist.

Radiation is a standard component of treatment for a wide range of cancers, with about two-thirds of all cancer patients receiving radiation at some point during their illness. New cancer patients are often concerned about the safety of radiation therapy. Let me clear up some misconceptions about the safety of radiation therapy.

The most common question my patients ask: Do radiation treatments pose a risk to others?

This concern is understandable, and as a radiation oncology physician, I encourage my patients to ask questions. You can be assured, though, that the answer is “no.”

Is it safe for me?

Radiation therapy has been highly effective in treating cancer since the early 1900s. Today’s technology allows us to safely deliver treatment in higher doses. Ultimately, the goal of radiation therapy is to destroy tumors while avoiding or limiting damage to healthy tissue.

We treat around 2,000 patients each year with radiation beam therapy, which targets tumors with beams of high-energy X-rays. We also use brachytherapy – pronounced bray-key-therapy – to physically place radioactive sources inside or close to your tumor.

Of course, safety is a concern for radiation treatment. Your physician will develop a plan for your radiation treatment that will be optimized to kill tumor cells while being well-tolerated by surrounding healthy tissue. He or she will take special care to avoid “organs at risk” – those organs close enough to the field of radiation to potentially receive damage.

At UT Southwestern we use everything from sophisticated image-guidance technology, to a two-person verification procedure before each treatment, to make sure each patient procedure is as accurate as possible.

Is it safe for my loved ones?

For most radiation therapy procedures, such as those using external beam radiation therapy or temporary brachytherapy catheters, the radiation never leaves the room. Once the beam or source is turned off, you leave and there is no residual radiation within your body.

Even for permanent brachytherapy implants, such as those used in the prostate, the amount of radiation that escapes your body during therapy is minimal. The intensity of the radiation is actually lower than what you emit after you’ve had a PET scan, which is an imaging test that uses a radioactive substance to search your body for disease.

Your family and friends don’t have to worry about being exposed to you. As a precaution, however, I advise patients who have permanent implants (such as for prostate cancer) to avoid holding a baby in their lap for extended periods and avoid sleeping directly next to your partner during the weeks in which the radiation is active.

Research is continually underway to further improve aspects of radiation treatment safety. Strategies that we are exploring range from lowering the radiation dose patients receive, to using computer automation to double-check patient charts.

Radiation therapy is not as scary as it seems, but it is a big step. Make sure you fully understand its risks and benefits. Talk to your oncologist before you begin treatment. You can request an appointment online or call 214-645-8300 to learn more about your radiation therapy options.