Radiation Treatment: Myths Persist
Nov. 7, 2006 -- Misconceptions and fears about radiation therapy lead many
men with prostate cancer to avoid the potentially lifesaving treatment,
"More than 90% of men we studied harbored some false beliefs or fears
about radiation," says researcher Riccardo Valdagni, MD, head of the
Prostate Programme at the Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori in
"They had many irrational worries with respect to radiation therapy that
can strongly influence their treatment choice," he tells WebMD.
The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for
Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology (ASTRO).
A Global Problem
While the study was performed in Italy, Theodore S. Lawrence, MD, PhD, head
of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor
and immediate past chairman of ASTRO's board of directors, says the findings
mirror his experience in the U.S.
"When people think of radiation, they think of Three Mile Island and
atom bombs," he tells WebMD. "This is worrisome, as radiation can be
aimed precisely at the tumor. It's a noninvasive procedure that can cure the
According to Valdagni, men with prostate cancer can choose between different
treatment options, including external beam radiation therapy, radiation seed
implants, and surgery.
During external beam radiation therapy -- the source of the men's irrational
fears in the study -- a beam of radiation, or X-ray, is directed through the
skin to the tumors and the immediate surrounding area to kill cancer cells. To
minimize side effects, the radiation is given five days a week for several
Myriad Fears Emerge
For the study, the Italian researchers asked 257 men with prostate cancer to
share their perceptions about radiation therapy.
The interviews showed that the biggest worries were related to false beliefs
about how the X- rays would affect them. For example, some men thought that
radiation cannot be controlled because it is invisible, that it would harm
surrounding unprotected organs, and that it could harm family members who were
in the room during treatment.
Men also worried that they would become radioactive themselves, Valdagni
says. And the lexicon used by their doctors, such as the term "heat the
target," often evoked feelings more related to war than to a cure.
"Many physicians don't realize that their patients have all these
irrational fears related to radiation therapy," Valdagni says.
He suggests that men with prostate cancer take the initiative and explain
their fears to their doctors. Additionally, people with cancer should bring a
family member with them for the discussion, as studies have shown that anxiety
can strongly compromise the ability to understand the benefits and risks of a
treatment strategy, he says.