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Radiation From Prostate Cancer Treatment Poses Little Threat to Family

WebMD Health News

Nov. 28, 2000 (Chicago) -- Tens of thousands of men with prostate cancer are coming home with radioactive pellets permanently implanted in the small gland in their groin -- but new research says that the spouses of these men have little to fear that the radiation emitted by these seeds will harm them.

And neither do children who hug their fathers or grandfathers, or babies who sit on their laps ... or even the family dog, researchers say here at a meeting of radiologists.

"We can now tell a woman, 'The amount of radiation you will get from your husband in one year is less that you would get from living in Denver for three or four months'," says Jeff Michalski, MD, assistant professor of radiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

About 38,000 men undergo the insertion of radioactive pellets of iodine-125 or palladium-103 in a procedure known as brachytherapy, Michalski says. Another 100,000 men undergo radical prostatectomy, the surgical removal of the organ, if cancer is discovered. However, Michalski says the survival rate in brachytherapy appears to be equivalent to that of surgery.

"But there are a lot of family members who are concerned about the radiation," said Feng Ming Kong, MD, a resident at Washington University. "They want to know if the radiation will affect them. As many as nine out of 10 patients will mention concerns about radiation affecting others. They want to know: 'Can I hold my granddaughter on my lap?' 'Is it okay to visit my pregnant daughter?'"

To answer the questions, Michalski recruited for the study 59 patients who were undergoing brachytherapy. Each patient put two radiation detection badges that measured the amount of radiation, in millirems, on themselves -- one at their collar and the other on the waist. They were given four tags to place around the home -- next to, for instance, their favorite living room chair, the bedroom night table, the kitchen, and bathroom.

Other members of the family also wore the badges. In some cases, the badges were even worn by pet dogs.

"We don't know what the healthy threshold is for radiation," explained Michalski during a press briefing. But he says that the level of radiation recorded on the badges ranged from undetectable -- less than one millirem of radiation during the three-week period of the study -- to an average of 10 millirems. Michalski says the background radiation that each person is exposed to through natural sources averages around 300 millirems a year in the United States.

In fact, he said that a round-trip flight from New York to Tokyo would expose a person to more radiation than the pellets.

"These studies show that the spouse or family member is at no greater risk of radiation exposure than a person who flies round trip from New York to San Francisco," says Hedvig Hricak, MD, chairman of radiology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

"It should not be of concern to people who have these implanted seeds. The reality is that you can live a normal life. You don't have to put the patient in the basement and keep him away from other people," Hricak says.

Even though it is unlikely there would be much exposure, even in the worst-case scenario, Michalski said it is still prudent for men with the pellets -- especially in the early days after treatment -- to avoid keeping pets or small children on their laps for lengthy amounts of time.


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