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Radiation Treatment: Myths Persist

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 7, 2006 -- Misconceptions and fears about radiation therapy lead many men with prostate cancer to avoid the potentially lifesaving treatment, researchers report.

"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 Milan, Italy.

"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 cancer."

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 weeks.

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.

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