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Internal radiotherapy safety

You need to follow some safety procedures when you have internal radiotherapy. This is to protect others from exposure to the radiation. This can include not being in contact with pregnant women and children for a time.

The safety precautions you need to take depend on the type of internal radiotherapy you’re having. Each hospital has slightly different routines, but the same safety rules apply across the UK.

Safety precautions after brachytherapy

Brachytherapy means a small radioactive metal called a source is put into or very close to the cancer. This means the cancer gets a high dose of radiation but nearby tissues get low levels. The source may be in place temporarily, for several minutes or days, or permanently.

Temporary brachytherapy

If you have brachytherapy for several minutes or over a couple of days, you are only radioactive while the source is in place. So as soon as the source is taken away, you are no longer radioactive and can be with other people.

While you have the treatment, you will be in a single room on your own. If you have treatment over days, visitors can usually only stay a limited time. They may need to sit some distance away from you. And children and pregnant women won't be able to visit. Your treatment team will talk to you about what to expect.

Permanent brachytherapy

With permanent brachytherapy, the source, such as radioactive seeds, stay in place forever. But the radiation gradually disappears over several weeks or months until the source is no longer radioactive.

The radiation doesn’t travel very far from the treatment area. So it is usually safe to be with other people. However, as a precaution you will need to avoid very close contact with children and pregnant women for a time. Your treatment team will give you specific advice about this.

Safety precautions after radioactive liquid treatment (radioisotopes)

You have radioactive liquid treatment as a capsule or drink, or as an injection into your bloodstream.

Because the radioactivity goes all around your body, it makes your saliva, sweat, blood and urine all radioactive. Your treatment team will give you instructions on how to safely clean up any fluids that may be spilled. And may tell you to flush the toilet twice after using it. You may need to avoid contact with children and pregnant women for a time.

You may be in hospital for a few days to have your treatment and for the level of radioactivity to go down to a level where it is safe to be with others. During this time, you will be looked after in a single room with access to your own bathroom. Your treatment team will still see you but for short periods of time.

After you leave hospital the staff might give you some safety precautions to follow for a while, for instance if you are in contact with children or pregnant women.

Your treatment team will give you specific advice about the safety precautions for the type of treatment you are having.

Coping with isolation

The radiotherapy safety measures can add to the worries you might already have about your treatment. But it’s important to follow them as it is to keep you, your treatment team, and your friends and family safe.

You may be worried about feeling lonely if you need to stay in hospital in a single room for your treatment. It can help to talk to your nurses about your worries. They can reassure you.

You will still be able to call the nurses if you need anything. They will just need to limit the time they are with you so they are not exposed to too much radiation.

You might be able to take in some personal items, such as a mobile phone, books or magazines, to help fill your time. After radioactive liquid treatment, your personal items might become contaminated with radioactivity due to your sweat. So they may suggest not bringing too many items in and nothing of value. The room will have a television and a phone.

The nurses or radiographers will tell you what you can or can’t bring in.

For more detailed information about the safety precautions for internal radiotherapy go to the treatment section of your cancer type.

Information and help